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US, Russian diplomats fail to bridge differences on Syria

By Patrick J. McDonnell and Paul Richter, Los Angeles Times –

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 Saturday 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 Saturday meeting — 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 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 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 Annan has said that 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 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 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 Assad squarely fits the definition of someone who should be disqualified.

The transition proposal is expected to be the focus of 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 Clinton and Lavrov, along with ministers from Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar. Iran, a close Assad ally, was not invited at Washington’s insistence. The session is widely viewed as a last chance to rescue Annan’s peace plan.

Assad is Russia’s last major Arab ally, following the U.S.-supported toppling of two other Arab autocrats, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi.

Street demonstrations that began almost 16 months ago against Assad have evolved into a full-fledged insurgency featuring thousands of rebels across the country battling government troops and armor.

As the violence in Syria escalates, opposition-linked monitoring groups have regularly reported daily civilian death tolls exceeding 100 and have blamed government forces for various “massacres.” The government has accused the opposition of exaggerating casualty counts for public relations purposes and concocting stories of massacres in a bid to sway global opinion in advance of major international meetings on Syria, such as the Saturday session in Geneva.

A recent U.N.-commissioned study found that killings in Syria were increasingly sectarian in nature and warned of “catastrophic” consequences should the spiraling violence continue unchecked.

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