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Russia signals support for Annan’s Syria plan

Russia and other key powers have signaled support U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan‘s plan for a political transition leading to the establishment of a national unity government, according to U.N. based diplomats. But Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, cautioned this morning that no final agreement has been concluded. Annan will host a meeting in Geneva ...

Russia and other key powers have signaled support U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan‘s plan for a political transition leading to the establishment of a national unity government, according to U.N. based diplomats. But Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, cautioned this morning that no final agreement has been concluded.

Annan will host a meeting in Geneva this Saturday of key foreign ministers, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Lavrov, to seek and endorsement for  his latest plan to end a bloody 16-month uprising that has left more than 10,000 dead and raised fear of a widening sectarian conflict engulfing the region.

Annan hopes to use the meeting to galvanize support among key global and regional powers, particularly the United States and Russia, for his transitional plan, and increase pressure on the Syrian government and the opposition to accept it.

Annan’s plan — which is detailed in a three page non-paper that has not been made public — would call on the key players in Syria and their foreign supporters to end the violence and create an "environment of calm and peace that will allow a transition," according to a U.N.-based diplomat briefed on the plan.

If those conditions are met, Annan would lead a mediation effort aimed at forging a national unity government comprised members of the Syrian government and individuals drawn from the disparate opposition. But the new government would "exclude those who are detrimental to stability and reconciliation and the transition," according to the diplomat. Russia, the official said, has "signaled to Annan that they can accept the plan."

The plan for a national unity government, which was first reported last night by Bloomberg and Reuters, makes no mention of the what role President Bashar al-Assad might play in a new government, according to a diplomat familiar with the plan, but diplomats who favor his departure say that it is impossible to see the Syrian president as anything but an obstacle to a stable transition.

Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, told the Security Council earlier this month that Moscow was not "wedded" to President Assad and would agree to his departure as long as it resulted from an agreement by the Syrian government and the opposition. It remains unlikely, however, that Russia will force Assad’s hand.

Lavrov voiced irritation that elements of the Annan plan had been leaked to the press ahead of the Geneva meeting. "There are no agreed drafts. Work on a possible final document continues," Lavrov said. The fate of Assad "must be decided within the framework of a Syrian dialogue by the Syrian people themselves," Lavrov told a news conference with the Tunisian foreign minister, according to a report by the French news agency, AFP. "Foreign players should not be dictating their solutions to the Syrians. We do not and cannot support any intervention or solutions dictated from abroad."
Clinton and Lavrov are scheduled to meet on Friday in St. Petersburg, where they will see if they can narrow their differences over Syria. But diplomats said the United States and Russia still differ sharply over the best course for halting the violence there, where the pace of killings, which dipped in the days following the April 12 ceasefire agreement, has since returned to pre-ceasefire levels, according to top U.N. officials.

The Annan paper also calls on the Syrian parties to stop the violence, end all human rights abuses, and guarantee the protection of minorities and accountability for perpetrators of the worst abuses.

In anticipation of the new approach, the U.N. peacekeeping department is preparing plans to change the mandate of the U.N. Supervising Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) from monitoring a non-existent ceasefire agreement and patrolling Syria’s conflict ridden towns to mediating an end to the conflict. The final configuration of the new U.N. mission will have to be approved by the Security Council.

Annan’s plan for a political transition had stalled earlier this week over Russia’s reluctance to endorse it and over the composition of the negotiating bloc — or "action group" — that would be invited to participate in this weekend’s meeting.

The action group includes the foreign ministers of the five permanent Security Council members — the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China — plus 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.

Annan wanted Iran, one of Syria’s closest allies, and Saudi Arabia, a military supporter of Syria’s armed opposition, to participate in the meeting. But Clinton had made it clear to Annan that she would not participate if Iran attended the meeting. In a compromise, Annan decided not to invite either Tehran or Riyadh, but to brief the two governments on the outcome of the meeting.

In New York, Iran’s U.N. ambassador, Mohammad Khazaee, told reporters on Wednesday that "a very important fact that cannot be ignored by anybody is the influence and constructive role that the Islamic Republic of Iran has in the region. So if some powers do not want to benefit from this influence and constructive role that’s their problem." But, he added: "from the beginning we have supported Mr. Kofi Annan’s plan and we believe that’s the best way to resolve the issues in Syria. Any kind of consultation by [Annan] with the Islamic Republic of Iran is welcomed any time."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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