Can US and Russia cut a deal on Syria action? Both sides to give it a try.

With Russia balking at even a watered down Syria resolution and the Arab League concerned by the UN text's weakening, Hillary Clinton is set to meet with Sergei Lavrov in Germany.

Reuters
Demonstrators hold the Russia flag with pictures of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, with the late Syria's President Hafez Al Assad, during a protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad on Friday in the Syrian city of Talbiseh.

United Nations Security Council members contemplated a watered-down resolution on Syria Friday, with Russia balking at any wording that could be construed as support for “regime change” targeting President Bashar al-Assad.

But with Western powers anxious for some Syria action, and with Arab League supporters unhappy with the changes already made in the text and insisting they will accept no further weakening, prospects were growing for a last-ditch, high-level diplomatic encounter to salvage the resolution.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are set to meet on the margins of the weekend’s annual Munich Security Conference in Germany. The two will meet to discuss the Syria resolution among other issues, State Department officials said. Late Friday the Security Council scheduled a meeting for Saturday, but it was uncertain whether a vote would be taken.

The US wants a resolution on Syria, and thus the support of the veto-wielding Russia, but it also wants any resolution to contain the international community's demand for a political transition in Syria, officials said.

"We want to see the Security Council speak in a unified and strong fashion in support of the Syrian people," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters in Washington Friday. He said the resolution must inform "the Syrian government that the violence needs to end and a political transition needs to take place."

The week had started with widespread optimism that the Security Council was on the verge of passing something meaningful on Syria, aimed at quelling the country’s escalating violence. But by Thursday, Russian objections had stripped a Morocco-sponsored, Arab-backed resolution of two key elements: a call for Mr. Assad to step down to make way for a caretaker government and elections; and a ban on arms sales to any actor in the Syrian conflict.

Western diplomats said they were not happy to see the resolution “defanged” of two important provisions, as one said, but that getting a resolution with Russian support would still send a strong message to Assad.

On Friday, council delegates were reviewing with their home governments a revised resolution that no longer mentions Assad but which says instead that the council “fully supports” an Arab League initiative on Syria.

But that Arab League proposal would have Assad step down to pave the way for new leadership, so the new wording seems anything but assured of Russian support.

The draft resolution says the council "fully supports ... the League of Arab States' 22 January 2012 decision to facilitate a Syrian-led political transition to a democratic, plural political system ... including through commencing a serious political dialogue between the Syrian government and the whole spectrum of the Syrian opposition."

The resolution also condemns the Syrian government for failing to follow through on reform commitments it has made over the past year.

The Security Council has been unable to agree on any resolution on Syria since the unrest began there nearly a year ago. The previous attempt at a resolution in October was vetoed by Russia, which said it feared that supporters would use a successful resolution as a pretext for the same kind of “regime change” action that Western powers had employed in helping Libyans bring down the regime of Muammar Qaddafi.

Secretary Clinton is likely to appeal to Russia’s interest in maintaining relations with the broader Arab world when she meets with Mr. Lavrov to discuss Syria, some diplomatic experts say. They note that Russia has already said it wants to find a way to support a resolution on Syria, and they add that Russia would be particularly loath to veto an Arab-sponsored text.

The perspective of Russia, which maintains close ties with Assad and continues to sell arms to him, is that any resolution should condemn all parties responsible for the country’s violence, and that what is an internal conflict should be resolved without outside intervention.  

But the question remains, what value will a resolution that has no teeth have in quelling Syria’s violence, which human rights organizations now say has claimed 7,000 lives? The revised text still calls for a “Syrian-led political transition,” but some analysts said that was probably vague enough for Assad to live with.

Assad ignored and ultimately drove off (through a studied lack of cooperation) the Arab League’s recent observer mission, some regional analysts note. They add that he is likely to do the same with a verbal condemnation from the Security Council.

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