US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will press Russia on Friday in a bid to save a crucial weekend meeting on the Syria crisis that has been threatened by objections from Moscow.
Clinton will meet her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov just one day after he angrily dismissed suggestions that Moscow backed a transition plan which Western powers said was on the agenda for Saturday’s talks in Geneva.
Peace envoy Kofi Annan’s proposal would hand power to an interim Syrian team without those “whose continued presence and participation would undermine the credibility of the transition and jeopardise stability and reconciliation”.
The wording appears to imply — without saying so directly — that Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad would have to relinquish his grip on the presidency for the idea to succeed.
Russia has recently cooled toward Assad while still providing its old ally with weapons and insisting that only the Syrians themselves can find a lasting solution to bloodshed that monitors say has claimed more than 15,000 lives in the nearly 16-month long conflict.
And Lavrov on Thursday rejected the notion that Russia was now ready to accept a prescription for the crisis “dictated from abroad.”
Diplomats at the United Nations said both Clinton and the foreign ministers of Britain and France later told Annan there would be no point in holding the Geneva meeting with regional powers unless Russia was also on board.
Clinton herself said prior to her Thursday arrival that “it was very clear from the invitations that were extended by special envoy Kofi Annan that people were coming on the basis of the transition plan that he had presented.”
The talks are scheduled to begin at 8:00 pm (1600 GMT) after Clinton attends a regional forum on women’s role in the economy and meets top local officials in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s native city.
Russian state press reports said Lavrov was also prepared to defend Moscow’s decision to send refurbished attack helicopters to Syria — a shipment that returned to port last weekend after the ship’s British insurer dropped cover.
The Russian government’s daily said Clinton will find Lavrov in combative spirits because the talks also come on the heels of a US Senate panel decision to back sanctions against officials who are implicated in a human rights case.
The state Rossiyskaya Gazeta remarked that “in recent days, we have not witnessed the slightest signs of a rapprochement” between Moscow and Washington on the crisis.
The Vedomosti business daily for its part said Moscow was still keen to hold the Geneva meeting because it gave Russia a chance to keep its influence in the future government.
Russia should try to make sure that the interim Syrian team includes “local specialists who were not involved in the conflict and received their education in the Soviet Union and Russia,” said the paper.