U.S., Russian diplomats fail to bridge differences on Syria
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BEIRUT -- The top U.S. and Russian diplomats failed to bridge critical differences about Syria on Friday during talks in Russia, leaving prospects uncertain for a high-level international "action group" scheduled to gather today in Geneva.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton attempted to persuade Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that world powers need to take a more assertive role in bringing about a "political transition" to end the raging violence in Syria. U.S. officials say that, as part of any transition, Syrian President Bashar Assad must go.
But Russia has insisted that outside nations cannot force out Moscow's longtime ally, and that Syrians must decide who leads them without external interference. Friday's encounter in St. Petersburg apparently did not alter fundamental differences about how to end the violence in Syria. A senior administration official said the two diplomats had "serious discussions on all areas of difficulty" on Syria, but that important gaps remained.
Nevertheless, U.S. officials have concluded that the meeting today -- meant to salvage U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan's faltering peace plan and hammer out a transition blueprint for Syria -- may still be productive, the official said.
The Russia foreign minister sounded an upbeat tone after meeting with Ms. Clinton, reported the Russian state RIA Novosti news agency. "We have a very good chance tomorrow in Geneva to find a common denominator and find a path forward in order to stimulate the implementation of Annan's plan," RIA Novosti quoted Mr. Lavrov as saying. "We're agreeing on most things."
The Russian diplomat has said Syrian authorities are prepared to withdraw their forces from populated areas in conjunction with a similar pullback by rebel fighters. But Mr. Annan has said the government has the "first responsibility" to redeploy forces.
Russia's support for any U.N.-backed transition plan for Syria is crucial because Moscow is a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council.
The Geneva meeting comes as a wave of escalating violence is sweeping across Syria's many contested zones, including the central city of Homs and the restive Damascus suburb of Duma, which has become a battleground. Opposition activists have alleged a massacre of civilians in Duma, while the government says dozens of "terrorists" have been killed in an offensive.
The amended peace plan from Mr. Annan envisions a Syrian "transitional" national unity government that could include members of the current government and opposition figures. Although the plan does not explicitly address Mr. Assad's fate, the transitional administration would bar anyone "whose continued presence and participation would undermine the credibility of the transition and jeopardize stability and reconciliation." U.S. officials argue that Mr. Assad squarely fits the definition of someone who should be disqualified.
The transition proposal is expected to be the focus of Mr. Annan's much-awaited "action group" meeting in Geneva. The high-voltage guest list includes the foreign ministers of all five permanent U.N. Security Council members, including Ms. Clinton and Mr. Lavrov, along with ministers from Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar.
First Published June 30, 2012 12:00 am