Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday that the United States and Russia are committed to trying again to get President Bashar Assad's regime and the rebel opposition to talk about a political transition in Syria, setting aside a year and a half of U.S.-Russian disagreements that have paralyzed the international community.
Clinton stressed, however, that the U.S. would insist once again that Assad's departure be a key part of that transition, a position not shared by the Russians.
In her first comments on the surprise three-way diplomatic talks held Thursday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.N. peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, Clinton said Washington and Moscow agreed to support a new mediation effort Brahimi would lead. She called Thursday's discussions "constructive," while adding that much work remained and suggesting that neither side shifted its fundamental position.
"We reviewed the very dangerous developments inside Syria," Clinton said in Northern Ireland. "And both Minister Lavrov and I committed to supporting a new push by Brahimi and his team to work with all the stakeholders in Syria to begin a political transition."
"It was an important meeting, but just the beginning," she added. "I don't think anyone believes there was some great breakthrough. No one should have any illusions about how hard this remains, but all of us with any influence on the process, with any influence on the regime or the opposition, need to be engaged."
Neither Assad nor any opposition group has agreed to a cease-fire and talks. Both sides believe they can resolve the conflict militarily. Even if the U.S. and Russia reach a broader agreement on a path forward, bringing most of the world with them, it is unclear if that will have any effect on the fighting in Syria.
The 40-minute meeting with Lavrov and Brahimi immediately seemed to ease some of the tensions between the U.S. and Russia over how best to address Syria's bloody, 21-month civil war. Through much of the conflict, the former Cold War foes have argued bitterly. The U.S. has criticized Russia for shielding its closest Arab ally. Moscow has accused Washington of meddling by demanding Assad's downfall.
Clinton said nothing that suggested either government had changed its position, and Lavrov made no public comments after the meeting. But with rebels fighting government forces on the outskirts of Syria's capital and Western governments warning about possible chemical weapons deployment by the Assad regime, Clinton emphasized the importance of taking another shot at a peaceful transition deal.
Diplomatic efforts are needed to gauge "what is possible in face of the advancing developments on the ground which are increasingly dangerous not only to Syrians, but to their neighbors," Clinton said, in an apparent reference to Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, which has become the focus of Western nervousness about the civil war.
Brahimi said after the talks that he would put together a peace process based on a political transition strategy the U.S. and Russia agreed on in Geneva in June. At that time, the process quickly became bogged down over how the international community might enforce its conditions.
But instead of addressing the plan's shortcomings, Clinton stressed its continued value, saying it would commit any future Syrian authority to democratic principles and international human rights standards.
Clinton also said the strategy would have to mean the end of the four-decade Assad regime — a contentious point with Moscow, which has insisted that Syria's leadership is not for the United States or any other outside party to decide on.
"The United States stands with the Syrian people in insisting that any transition process result in a unified, democratic Syria in which all citizens are represented — Sunni, Alawi, Christians, Kurds, Druze, men, women. Every Syrian must be included," Clinton told reporters. "And a future of this kind cannot possibly include Assad."
The plan Brahimi is hoping to resuscitate was crafted earlier this year by his predecessor as the Syria peace envoy, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Annan's plan never got off the ground, and he resigned his post in frustration.
It starts with several demands on the Assad regime to de-escalate tensions and end the violence that activists say has killed more than 40,000 people since March 2011. It then requires Syria's opposition and the regime to put forward candidates for a transitional government, with each side having the right to veto nominees proposed by the other.
If anything resembling Annan's plan takes hold, it would surely mean the end of Assad's presidency. The opposition has demanded his departure and has rejected any talk of him staying in power. Yet it also would grant regime representatives the opportunity to block Sunni extremists and others in the opposition that they reject.
The United States blamed the collapse of the process last summer on Russia for vetoing a third resolution at the U.N. Security Council that would have applied world sanctions against Assad's government for failing to live by its provisions.
Russia insisted that the Americans couldn't demand Assad's departure. It also worried about opening the door to military action, even as Washington offered to include language in any U.N. resolution that would have expressly forbidden outside armed intervention.