Syria on agenda as Clinton, Lavrov meet in St. Petersburg

Hillary-clinton
BEIRUT -- The tough-talking U.S. secretary of State faces off with a wily Russian statesman Friday at a meeting that could help determine the fate of strife-ridden Syria.

Russian Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov is scheduled to host Hillary Rodham Clinton in St. Petersburg, Russia, at a pivotal moment in stalled diplomatic efforts to craft a solution for the Syrian crisis. The two top envoys with greatly contrasting styles have tussled verbally from afar in recent weeks about the issue.

Lavrov, a former ambassador to the United Nations, has at times seemed exasperated with Clinton’s occasionally undiplomatic broadsides. Their contrasting pedigrees — Clinton comes out of the untidy world of politics; Lavrov is a practiced diplomat, albeit of the hard-nosed Russian variety — have played out in a very public spat.

Clinton has accused Russia of contributing to Syria’s descent toward civil war, of lying about arms shipments to the Middle Eastern nation and of risking a dramatic escalation by shipping attack helicopters to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s military.

The normally restrained Lavrov fired back recently, accusing Washington of dispatching military equipment that could be used against “peaceful demonstrators” in an unnamed Persian Gulf country -- presumably Bahrain, a pro-U.S. monarchy that has cracked down violently on Arab Spring-inspired protesters.

At the core of the dispute between two superpowers with lingering Cold War ill-will is a fundamental disagreement on the future of Assad, Russia’s last major Arab ally, following the U.S.-backed toppling of two other Arab autocrats, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Moammar Kadafi.

The United States unequivocally wants Assad out. Russia is against any international deal to force Assad’s departure, though Moscow says it is not tied to his continued presence.

U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan’s amended peace blueprint for Syria now envisions a "transitional" national unity government that could exclude Assad, though it could include members of his government, along with opposition figures.

The proposal is the highlight of Annan’s much-awaited “action group” meeting scheduled for Saturday in Geneva. The high-voltage guest list includes the foreign ministers of all five permanent U.N. Security Council members, including Clinton and Lavrov. The session is widely viewed as a last chance to rescue Annan’s six-point peace plan, now on life support.

U.S. officials have been hinting that Clinton’s attendance at Saturday’s session was contingent upon a blueprint that would, in essence, force Assad’s departure.

“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,” Clinton told reporters Thursday in Riga, Latvia.

Lavrov’s response: No transition plan is set in stone. And Russia will not tolerate “outside interference or imposition of recipes” in Syria.

Whether the divergent visions are irreconcilable may be determined Friday along the banks of the Neva River, in Russia’s venerable former imperial capital.

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-- Patrick J. McDonnell

Photo: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in St. Petersburg on Friday, where she laid flowers at the monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad, commemorating those who fought against the Nazis during the 900-day siege of the city in 1941-44. Credit: Olga Maltseva / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.

 
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