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Updated Friday, December 7, 2012 at 06:12 AM

With war shifting, U.S., U.N., Russia talk Syria's future

By Anne Gearan
The Washington Post

DUBLIN — Russia's top diplomat held a private discussion Thursday with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the United Nations envoy for Syria about the civil war in the country that is Russia's closest Middle East ally.

The meeting is a sign that Russia may be reconsidering support for Syrian President Bashar Assad, purely as a practical response to his weakening military position. Until now, Russia has rejected U.S. and other calls to abandon Assad and has appeared to think he could defeat the rebels and keep his government intact.

Russia has been the chief international defender of Assad's government and the main obstacle to tougher U.N. action to pressure him to end the war and step aside.

No decisions emerged from Thursday's three-way talks, but a State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the talks had been constructive. Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, said the group was seeking a "creative" solution to the Syria crisis.

The meeting came amid fresh worries that a desperate Assad might resort to using chemical weapons against the rebels or civilians. Clinton would not directly address reports that Assad's army has prepared deadly sarin gas for delivery by missile.

"Events on the ground in Syria are accelerating, and we see that in many different ways," Clinton said ahead of the meeting. "The pressure against the regime in and around Damascus seems to be increasing. We've made it clear what our position is with respect to chemical weapons."

President Obama has warned the Syrian government that the use of such munitions would trigger U.S. intervention.

Other U.S. officials said this week that intelligence agencies have detected that Assad's government has been preparing its chemical-weapons stockpiles for possible use. About 40,000 people have died in the uprising.

Russian officials have long believed Assad can defeat the rebels.

The session involving Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Brahimi came at the U.N. envoy's invitation. He and other would-be peacemakers say a lasting solution would require agreement between the United States and Russia.

After the 40-minute session, Brahimi said no major decisions were made but the three parties had agreed to work together.

It was not clear that Russia intends to withdraw its support for Assad, but Lavrov's willingness to attend the meeting indicated the Kremlin was exploring its options.

Syria's deputy foreign minister said Western powers were whipping up fears about chemical weapons as a "pretext for intervention."

Hillary Rodham Clinton


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