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Clinton says a free Syria can never include Assad

— A free Syria can never include the leader now fighting to hang on to his three-decade regime, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday, underscoring the American goal for new U.S.-Russian cooperation on Syria.

Clinton called talks she held Thursday with the Russian foreign minister constructive but very preliminary. The two diplomats agreed to support efforts by the United Nations-Arab League envoy for Syria, a decision Clinton said was influenced by rapid escalation of the 20-month civil war.

“I don’t think anyone believes that there was some great breakthrough,” Clinton said. “No one should have any illusions about how hard this remains.”

Anyone with any influence on the regime or the rebels is duty-bound to try to intervene for a “political transition,” in Syria, Clinton said.

The transition phrase is a euphemism the United States has employed to make the goal of ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad easier for his Russian backers to swallow. But Clinton followed it with a flat statement that Assad cannot hope to survive any reordering of the Syrian government that the new cooperation might foster.

The United States wants freedom and protections for all Syrians and will hold all parties to account, Clinton said.

“A future of this kind cannot possibly include Assad,” Clinton said.

She spoke in Northern Ireland, whose struggle to overcome decades of political violence she often invokes when talking of newer conflicts. In that region, a political row over how many days the Union flag flies over a government building has set off new demonstrations and more dangerous reminders of the bombing campaigns of the recent past. Hours before Clinton came to Belfast, police found two bombs in the region.

A Belfast parliamentarian, Naomi Long, received death threats this week but came to a speech Clinton gave Friday that focused on peace efforts.

“The only path forward is a peaceful democratic one that recognizes the right of others to express their opinions but not to resort to violence,” Clinton said following meetings at the parliament, Stormont Castle. “There can be no place in the new Northern Ireland for any violence. Any remnants of the past need to be quickly and unequivocally condemned.”

Anne Gearan is a national politics correspondent for The Washington Post.

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