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Saturday, June 30, 2012
US and Russian diplomats have held talks on Syria ahead of today’s international conference that aims to ease Syrian president Bashar al-Assad from power.
US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov met for about an hour yesterday in the Russian city of St Petersburg.
Lavrov told reporters that the two countries "are agreeing on most things".
The former Cold War foes have clashed repeatedly since violence broke out in Syria 16 months ago.
The US wants Assad to leave power while Russia opposes any "external meddling" in Syrian affairs.
UN mediator Kofi Annan wants the world powers to agree on a plan calling for a national unity government in Syria.
US officials are adamant that the plan will not allow Assad to remain in power at the top of the transitional government, but Russia insists that outsiders cannot dictate the ultimate solution or the composition of the interim administration.
Annan laid out his expectations for the conference in an op-ed in The Washington Post. The future government in Syria "must include a government of national unity that would exercise full executive powers", he said.
"This government could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups, but those whose continued presence and participation would undermine the credibility of the transition and jeopardise stability and reconciliation would be excluded," he added.
Such a proposal does not explicitly bar Assad, but the US and other western powers participating in the conference said that is implicit.
Assad also said any future government in Syria must hold free elections for a multiparty government.
Russia is Syria’s most important ally, protector and supplier of arms. Diplomatic hopes for peace have rested on persuading Russia to agree to a plan that would end the Assad dynasty, which has ruled Syria for over four decades.
The difference in interpretation between the US and Russia could prove to be the plan’s unravelling.
Clinton hoped to press Lavrov on the point at their meeting and over dinner following a gathering of Asia-Pacific foreign ministers that Lavrov is hosting in St Petersburg.
Lavrov has acknowledged a transition period is necessary to end the violence in Syria, but said Russia had not agreed to all elements of Annan’s plan, in particular any suggestion that Assad would be required to leave.
"We are not supporting and will not support any external meddling," Lavrov said. "External players must not dictate... to Syrians, but, first of all, must commit to influencing all the sides in Syria to stop the violence."
He said the Annan plan was a work in progress.
But Clinton, said it was "very clear" that all participants in the Geneva meeting — including Russia — were on board with the plan. She told reporters that the invitations made clear that representatives "were coming on the basis of [Annan’s] transition plan".
She said she expects the meeting "to provide an opportunity to make real progress" on that plan.
Meanwhile, helicopter gunships bombarded a strategic town in northern Syria overnight and tanks moved close to the commercial hub of Aleppo, rebels said, but kept clear of new Turkish air defences installed to curb Syrian action near its frontiers.
Turkish commanders inspected the missile batteries deployed on the border region following Syria’s shooting down of a Turkish warplane a week ago.
The Turkish deployments, a graphic warning to Assad, coincide with rising violence across Syria.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 190 people, including 125 civilians, were killed on Thursday alone.
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