U.S. and Russia to convene peace conference on Syria

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MOSCOW -- The United States and Russia agreed Tuesday to try to bring together the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the rebel opposition for peace talks, signaling a potential breakthrough in long-stalled diplomatic efforts to end a bloody conflict that threatens to destabilize the entire region.

The meeting, announced by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov after a day of talks, appeared to reflect a significant softening of Russia's support for Mr. Assad.

"I would like to emphasize that we ... are not interested in the fate of certain persons," Mr. Lavrov told reporters following a meeting with Mr. Kerry. "We are interested in the fate of the total Syrian people."

Mr. Lavrov said the United States and Russia were committed to a deal that would guarantee the "sovereignty and territorial integrity" of Syria and would follow the approach of a diplomatic agreement worked out by world powers last year. "We are convinced that this will be the best and shortest way to resolve the Syrian crisis," he said.

The developments in Moscow seemed to signal a revival of the so-called Geneva Communique, agreed to in June at a special "Action Group for Syria" meeting convened by Kofi Annan, the former U.N.-Arab League special peace envoy.

The communique's road map for a peaceful political transition in Syria was sidelined amid differences between Moscow and Washington on a fundamental issue -- the future of Mr. Assad. Before the Geneva session, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had pushed for an explicit guarantee that Mr. Assad would have to relinquish power, but Russia balked.

The final communique called for a transitional governing structure in Syria, with full executive powers, created with "mutual consent." At Russia's insistence, the communique specified that the transitional Syrian administration could include members of the current government and of the opposition -- although U.S. officials insisted the "mutual consent" language basically meant that Mr. Assad had to go.

But the process never got underway, and the violence has accelerated, leaving more than 70,000 dead, according to U.N. estimates.

Forcing Mr. Assad's removal remains a formidable hurdle for Moscow, one that looms large in any prospective peace plan that may emerge from the latest U.S.-Russian initiative.

But Moscow's softening position now may reflect a growing urgency of finding a diplomatic solution, at a moment when it appears that the 2-year-old civil war could explode into a regionwide proxy struggle entangling the United States, Israel, Russia, Iran and its neighboring states.

The Obama administration has been threatening in recent days to increase its military role in support of the rebels, and Israel over the weekend reportedly struck Syrian targets twice.

Yet it remained unclear whether the two sides would be able to bring together Mr. Assad, who has insisted that he would never surrender his post, and the rebels, who have refused to negotiate with him.

Mr. Lavrov and Mr. Kerry provided no immediate details on how they hoped to overcome these obstacles. But Mr. Kerry insisted that world powers have no choice but to apply all possible pressure. "The alternative is that there is even more violence," he told reporters. "The alternative is that Syria heads closer to the abyss, if not over the abyss, and into chaos."

Mr. Lavrov suggested that the rebels might be the holdouts. "The opposition has not yet expressed its adherence to settlement based on the Geneva Communique, and the opposition has not yet named a negotiator on its behalf," he said.

Mr. Kerry said they hoped to bring together the meeting "as soon as practical" -- perhaps by the end of the month.

In Washington, President Barack Obama, facing criticism that he has fallen short of his commitments on Syria, promised that he would follow through, as he had done in killing Osama bin Laden and ousting former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.



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