Annan Looks to Overcome Russia Misgivings Over Syria Plan

United Nations special envoy Kofi Annan is looking to overcome Russia’s misgivings about a plan to end bloodshed in Syria and resolve the fate of President Bashar al-Assad.

Foreign ministers of the five permanent UN Security Council members -- China, France, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. -- as well as Turkey, Qatar, Kuwait and Iraq will attend a conference in Geneva today to discuss Annan’s plan. The meeting’s success may hinge on whether Russia breaks with Assad after shielding him with Security Council vetoes.

Persuading Assad to step aside and not be part of a transitional government paving the way for elections lies at the core of Annan’s plan, which seeks to end 16 months of violence that has claimed more than 10,000 lives. About 4,000 Syrians have been killed since Annan took on the peacemaking mission in February, according to the Local Coordination Committees, an activist group.

Annan, who also represents the Arab League, said yesterday he’s optimistic that the meeting would yield an “acceptable result” on how to proceed with a handover of power.

Russian Foreign Minster Sergei Lavrov, after meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday in St. Petersburg, said he wants changes in Annan’s plan.

U.S.-Russia Gap

They agreed on “most of” the plan, Lavrov said, while telling reporters afterwards that he is seeking unspecified changes. Lavrov said Russia and the U.S. agree that Annan’s proposals “aren’t untouchable,” and he predicted a compromise.

“We’ll find a way out in Geneva,” Lavrov said.

Clinton and Lavrov failed to resolve their differences during nearly an hour of one-on-one talks, said a State Department official, who asked for anonymity because the discussions are private. Clinton pointed to the dangers of Syria leading to a wider regional conflict, the official said, adding that the two ministers agreed to go to Geneva out of respect for Annan, knowing an accord may not be reached there.

The discussions remain challenging, the official said about an hour after the full action group began its meeting in Geneva.

Clinching a deal with Russia and China “remains very difficult,” U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague told journalists today as he arrived for the meeting. “I don’t know whether it will be possible to do so. In the interests of saving thousands of lives and of our international responsibilities, we will try to do so, but of course there will be no point signing up to a worthless agreement or one that does not advance the situation.”

‘Key Steps’

Annan’s three-page paper sets out as “key steps in any transition” the creation of a unity government, which he defined in terms that would leave out Assad and some members of his inner circle. The plan says the new government “could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups, but would exclude from government those whose continued presence and participation would undermine the credibility of the transition and jeopardize stability and reconciliation.”

The U.S. refuses to endorse any plan that enables Assad to remain in power at the top of a transitional administration.

The Syrian leader yesterday said his government rejects any external solutions to the conflict. Assad said it’s the government’s responsibility to wipe out the “terrorists,” as Syrian authorities refer to rebels. He has said that any future government in Syria must hold free and fair elections for a multiparty leadership.

Turkey Tensions

Tensions have also risen with neighboring Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, after Syria on June 22 shot down a Turkish warplane that it said violated its territory and Turkey said was in international airspace.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said this week that Turkey had changed its military rules of engagement after the incident and that any military force approaching the Turkish border from Syria could be viewed as a threat and treated as a military target.

Iran, Syria’s ally, was excluded from the Geneva talks at the insistence of the U.S., which said the Tehran regime has provided Assad’s forces with weapons, training and other support. Russia, which sought to include Iran, then opposed inviting Saudi Arabia, which it said is helping arm the Syrian opposition.

Iran’s exclusion is a mistake, Iranian Ambassador to the UN Mohammad Khazaee said yesterday in New York. He criticized Western nations “and particularly the United States” for failing to consider “the power and influence of Iran.” The Islamic republic could be “a heavyweight champion in bringing peace to the region,” he said.

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