As Assad talks war, US and UN talk peace

Rapid deterioration of the situation in Syria has given world leaders a sense of urgency, but they seem no closer to finding common ground.

By , Staff writer

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    Wrecked cars are seen at the site of an explosion outside Syria's highest court (background) in central Damascus June 28. The explosion tore through the car park outside the court on Thursday, torching at least 20 cars, a Reuters witness said, but it was not immediately known if there were any casualties.
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World leaders are scrabbling for purchase, calling an emergency meeting in Geneva as the Syrian conflict descends into a full-fledged war. With President Bashar al-Assad's pronouncement two days ago that the conflict is now a war, it seems any modicum of restraint is likely over.

The United Nations Security Council (the US, Britain, France, Russia, and China) and Turkey will gather in Geneva this weekend for a meeting to discuss a plan for an interim government in Syria that was hastily announced late yesterday by UN/Arab League special envoy to Syria Kofi Annan.

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Human rights monitors say that the past week has been the bloodiest in the 16-month uprising-turned-civil-war. Almost 160 were killed yesterday alone, according to Agence France-Presse.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed to the meeting after speaking with Mr. Annan about his plan and determining that it provided a good foundation for talks, State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, according to CNN. Negotiations have so far mostly ended in deadlock between Russia and the US, Britain, and France (with China following Russia's lead). A peace plan crafted by Annan earlier this year has been left in shreds.

Ms. Nuland would not disclose any details about the negotiations or address whether Russia has softened its opposition to either a political transition directed by outside powers or further action against the Assad regime. She said only that "our litmus test for whether we thought this meeting should go forward, as we've been saying for many days now, was that we expected we could make concrete progress," according to CNN.

Ms. Clinton will travel to Russia tomorrow to meet with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The two countries have been on opposing sides on just about every element of an international response to Syria's uprising. To Washington's consternation, Moscow has continued its arms sales to Syria, defending them as being based on pre-existing contracts and/or only for defensive purposes.

The two most recently clashed over the list of countries invited to the Geneva meeting. Russia wanted Iran, a key ally of Assad, in attendance, which the US rejected. Saudi Arabia, whose presence was desired by the US, seems to have been left out in a concession to Russia, who has insisted in equanimity in negotiations. As the logic goes, if Iran is to be excluded by the US for backing Assad, then Saudi Arabia, which has been widely accused of arming the rebel forces, should also be left out.

Annan said last week that he considered Iran's participation essential, decrying the rivalries between the US and Russia and Saudi Arabia and Iran that have so far blocked it, Tony Karon writes in Time Magazine. “I have made it quite clear that I believe Iran should be part of the solution,” Annan said in Geneva last Friday. “If we continue the way we are going and competing with each other, it could lead to destructive competition and everyone will pay the price.”

Russia's UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, was careful to say that Moscow's agreement to attend the meeting was not a guarantee that it would accept Annan's plan – only that it agreed to it as a basis for discussion, according to AFP.

Annan's interim government would include officials for both sides. Concrete details beyond that are either undisclosed or undecided, although a UN diplomat told AFP that it would not include any officials whose inclusion "might jeopardize the transition 'or undermine efforts to bring reconciliation'."

"The language of Annan's plan suggests that Assad could be excluded but also that certain opposition figures could be ruled out," a second UN diplomat told AFP, noting that there isn't anything in the plan to specifically exclude him either.  

A senior member of the Syrian opposition said today that the opposition would only agree to a transition plan if it explicitly requires Assad to leave power before the unity government is formed, Reuters reports.

"The proposal is still murky to us but I can tell you that if it does not clearly state that Assad must step down, it will be unacceptable to us," said Samir Nashar, an executive member of the international Syrian National Council. "If the proposal said Assad must step down, then the idea of allowing other members of the current government to participate could be open to discussion."

But those fighting on the ground took a harder line. A Free Syrian Army fighter in Homs told Reuters that they could not accept the plan, period, and that the time for peace-making was long past. "This is just a new labyrinth. It is new silliness for us to get lost in and haggle over who can participate and who can't," said the fighter, Ahmed.

Mr. Karon writes in Time that the US-Russia antagonism leaves little room for optimism about the Geneva talks bringing about any change, or even ending with anything concrete. There are no signs that either party will change elements of its position that the other considers a deal breaker.

Indeed, the parties that will meet with Assad in Geneva have different ideas on resolving the crisis, but none appears to have decisive leverage to bring to bear in order to shape its preferred outcome. The U.S. insists that the conflict can’t be resolved while Assad remains in power; the Russians point out that Washington has no credible plan for dealing with the fallout that would follow the regime’s precipitous collapse. For much of the past year, officials in Washington have speculated that Russia might break with Assad, but the passage of time has made those claims look Pollyannaish.

Indeed, Russia’s willingness to push back against U.S. plans for tackling the Syrian crisis were evident in its effort to support Iran being invited to Annan’s conference. The U.S. nixed that idea, meaning that the conference that will be held in Geneva will be more limited in its scope and ambition. And nobody is expecting an outcome that makes much difference what even Assad himself now calls a “state of war” in Syria.

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