Russia Must Drop Assad Before Talks, U.S. Official Says

A meeting of world powers to discuss ending the conflict in Syria won’t happen unless Russia first agrees that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must be replaced, a U.S. State Department official said.

United Nations Special Envoy Kofi Annan is seeking to convene a June 30 gathering in Geneva to persuade major powers and neighboring states to support a political transition to end the Syrian conflict, which has claimed more than 10,000 lives, according to human rights groups.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke with Annan from her plane en route to Helsinki for the start of a three-nation tour that includes Russia, and it was unclear if the meeting on Syria would take place, a U.S. diplomat told reporters traveling with Clinton on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Annan wants to include foreign ministers from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council -- China, France, Russia, the U.K., and the U.S. -- plus representatives of the European Union, the Arab League and regional states including Turkey, Qatar, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Iran, according to a June 25 letter Annan wrote to Clinton. Syria wouldn’t be represented.

Annan proposed the conference in Geneva after a monitoring mission he led was suspended in the face of continued warfare. That has put at risk the future of the mission, which is up for renewal July 20.

The team of about 300 observers won’t be able to resume their work because conditions have become too dangerous, UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told the Security Council yesterday, according to a UN diplomat present at a closed-door briefing.

Including Syria

The move to include Iran in the proposed conference is complicating efforts to end the crisis. Russia said such an international conference would be deficient without Iran, and foreign ministers should lead it.

“The ministerial level is the minimum necessary to try to reverse the current situation,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who’s indicated that he would attend, told reporters yesterday in Jordan.

The U.S. doesn’t “think that Iran has a place at the table” because it is “aiding and abetting the Assad regime on the ground in the murdering of its own people,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said yesterday at a press briefing in Washington.

Russia’s Move

The Obama administration regards the Russian move to include Iran as an attempt to protect longtime ally and arms client Assad without being blamed for blocking Annan’s effort to negotiate an end to the crisis, said two U.S. officials who asked not to be identified to discuss the administration’s internal deliberations.

Clinton has no interest in attending a Geneva conference that includes Iran and she believes is unlikely to add to the pressure on Assad to surrender power, the officials said.

“We want to make sure that if we do this, it’s not going to be an empty meeting; that it’s going to actually produce results for the Syrian people,” Nuland said at the press briefing yesterday.

Clinton and Lavrov will “continue the discussion” on Syria when they meet June 29 in St. Petersburg, Russia, Nuland said.

The danger that the crisis could escalate rose yesterday in the aftermath of the June 22 downing of a Turkish warplane by Syrian forces.

Syria’s Version

Russia sides with Syria’s version of events: The plane violated Syria’s airspace, and Syria didn’t know its identity. Intercepted radio communication among Syrian authorities “clearly demonstrates” that Syria was “fully aware of the circumstances and the fact that the aircraft belonged to Turkey,” according to a June 24 letter Turkey submitted to the UN Security Council.

The incident has drawn Turkey deeper into a 16-month conflict that risks spilling into the rest of the Middle East. Turkey, which shares its longest border with Syria, said it’s ready to open fire on any Syrian forces that approach its territory and are deemed a threat.

“As dictators fighting for survival often do, Assad may have overplayed his hand,” said George Lopez, a former United Nations sanctions investigator who’s now at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. “Turkey’s response that it has changed its military rules of engagement along the border means it has become a more sensitive flash point.”

‘Clear Danger’

The downing of the F-4 Phantom jet shows Assad poses a “clear and present danger” to Turkey, as well as to the Syrian people, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told lawmakers from his party in Ankara yesterday. “Any military element that approaches the Turkish border from Syria in a way that may pose a risk or danger will be viewed as a threat and treated as a military target.”

Erdogan’s more bellicose tone comes after Syrian security forces have carried out frequent operations against opposition forces near the border area. Turkey shares a border of more than 800 kilometers (500 miles) with Syria.

President Barack Obama and top American military officials remain opposed to U.S. military intervention in Syria, according to the two U.S. officials. Both said the calculus could change.

The rising tensions on the Syrian-Turkish border or increased human-rights abuses by the Syrian military and allied militias could prompt a move to create a secure enclave inside Syria for opponents of the regime, the officials said.

Such a move would require establishing a no-fly zone above and around the enclave, and that in turn would require a broader campaign to destroy or neutralize Syria’s air defenses, which one of the officials said are more formidable than the ones NATO faced in Libya.

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