Syria crisis: Hillary Clinton, Russian foreign minister to attend emergency talks

June 27, 2012

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her Russian counterpart agreed Wednesday to attend an emergency meeting on Syria this weekend following personal appeals by U.N. envoy Kofi Annan to consider new proposals for a Syrian political transition.

Final agreement by Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov came after Russia dropped its insistence that Iran be invited to the Annan-convened gathering of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, along with Turkey and Arab League officials, according to a senior Obama administration official.

In New York, U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said Annan would brief Iran after the meeting.

Iran’s U.N. ambassador, Mohammad Khazaee, told reporters, “If some powers that be do not want to benefit from [Iran’s] influence and constructive role, that’s their problem.”

Clinton had expressed doubts about the prospect of convening what Annan christened an “action group” and said she would not attend if Iran was there. After Iran was excluded, she said she was hopeful the meeting would mark a “turning point” in the international effort to resolve the escalating Syrian crisis.

The secretary of state and Lavrov will meet Friday in St. Petersburg for a previously scheduled discussion before heading to the Annan meeting in Geneva.

It remains unclear whether Russia has reversed its refusal to agree to any transition plan that guarantees the departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Officials from several countries planning to attend the meeting said it is unlikely that Russia will abandon Assad.

“Our concern is that the Russian position may not have shifted enough to make the meeting constructive,” said a European diplomat who closely monitors the situation. “We’re not so worried about a huge setback, more just a waste of time.”

The diplomat also expressed concern that the meeting could undermine efforts of the much larger Friends of Syria group, which has been coordinating international action on Syria.

U.S., European and U.N. officials discussed the issue on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities.

Annan has acknowledged the impotence of his two-month-old U.N. mandate to negotiate a cease-fire and begin transition talks. Violence levels “have now reached or even surpassed” those at the beginning of Annan’s mission in April, said Annan’s deputy, Jean-Marie Guehenno.

The tide of battle still appears to favor Assad’s Russian-armed military, but Syrian rebels have launched better-organized attacks recently and moved the fighting closer to Damascus, the Syrian capital. An apparent rebel attack Wednesday on the pro-government al-Ikhbariya TV station south of the capital left seven employees dead, wire services reported.

According to the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency, three journalists and four security workers were killed when armed men stormed the building in the town of Drousha. Amnesty International, which has condemned Syrian government attacks that have left more than 10,000 dead since the uprising against Assad began early last year, criticized the attack on what it called a “civilian target.”

“Even a media organization engaged in propaganda is still a civilian object, so it and those working for it must never be deliberately targeted,” Amnesty said of the privately owned station, which regularly broadcasts programs blaming the uprising on “terrorists.”

In announcing this weekend’s meeting, Annan offered no details of what he said were newly developed “guidelines and principles” for a transition “and actions that will make these a reality on the ground.”

U.S. and other officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity about the ongoing sensitive discussions, said the plan includes an enhanced role for the Arab League, which will hold its own session on Syria early next week.

In a closed-door meeting with the Security Council on Tuesday, Annan deputy Nasser al-Kidwa said Annan had “made it clear that it is essential for states with influence to agree among themselves on a set of principles and guidelines in order to effectively support a Syrian-led political transition.”

Clinton, who was traveling in Finland before going to Russia, said everyone needs to agree before arriving in Geneva that Annan’s plan “will be the document we are endorsing by our presence.”

In addition to the permanent Security Council members — the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China — Annan said invitations had been extended to Turkey; the secretaries general of the United Nations and Arab League; and the foreign ministers of Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar, all of whom chair Arab League committees concerned with Syria.

Lynch reported from the United Nations.

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