Clinton heads to UN Syria talks, but lawmakers skeptical of breakthrough

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is headed to Geneva for an international meeting on Syria Saturday, but some lawmakers are expressing pessimism the talks will mark a turning point in Western efforts to resolve the conflict or force Syrian President Bashar-al Assad from power.

“It seems like in the world of trying to negotiate transitions and peace plans, there's always one last meeting,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who's in line to become the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee following Sen. Richard Lugar's (R-Ind.) primary defeat. 

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“Obviously the environment is being set where hopefully something good can happen, but I don't want to say this is the last chance for it to occur,” added Corker.

United Nations-Arab League special envoy for Syria Kofi Annan called the talks in hopes of salvaging his flailing six-point peace plan to end hostilities in the country, where Assad has waged a bloody crackdown to end a 16-month revolt against his rule.

Clinton on Thursday said the talks could “provide an opportunity to make real progress,” but few in Washington believe the meeting will dramatically alter the United States’ wait-and-see approach to the conflict.

The outlook for a breakthrough seemed to further dim late Friday after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters after an hour-long meeting with Clinton in St. Petersburg that Russia remains adamantly opposed to forcing Assad from power.

The United States and Russia disagree on whether Assad needs to leave office under Annan's proposal, spelled out in a Washington Post editorial Friday, for a transitional government that would exclude “those whose continued presence and participation would undermine the credibility of the transition and jeopardize stability and reconciliation.”

“In his transition document, it is a Syrian-led transition,” Clinton told reporters during a visit to Latvia on Thursday. “But we certainly believe that you have to have a transition that complies with international standards on human rights, accountable governance, the rule of law, equal opportunity for all people of Syria, and this framework lays out how to arrive at that.”

Russia has a less narrow interpretation.

“It's only up to the Syrians to make agreements on what the Syrian state will be like, who will hold (government) jobs and positions," Lavrov told the Interfax news agency on Friday.

Russia remains a solid supporter of the Syrian government, which provides it with a naval base on the Mediterranean at Tartus. 

Russia has twice blocked sanctions in the United Nations Security Council aimed at increasing pressure on the Assad regime and a Russian cargo ship carrying attack helicopters is currently on its way to Syria now, the head of the federal service for military-technical co-operation told the Russian news service RIA-Novosti on Thursday.

“Syria is our friend, and we fulfill all our obligations to our friends," Alexander Fomin reportedly said. "According to a 2008 contract, we repaired three Mi-25s and are ready to deliver them on time.”

If no deal is reached in this weekend’s talks, disagreement is expected to continue on Capitol Hill between hawks like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who want the United States to lead airstrikes and arm the Syrian rebels and others who are wary of giving weapons to a ragtag group that includes Islamist militants.

“Each time the Arab Spring broke, it seemed to break in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood. The question I would ask the administration is, can you assure us this won't break in the direction of the Muslim Brotherhood, as Egypt has, as Libya has?” said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a vocal critic of the Obama administration's foreign policy. “Until I know the answer to that question, I'm not going to have an opinion on whether we should intervene or what our position should be.”

King said giving weapons and ammunition to the people “who are being slaughtered” by Assad's forces seems like a good idea, but “I don't just have enough intel that gives me the sense that I know” who the United States is dealing with.