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US, Russia vow to bring Syria's warring factions to table

| Tuesday, May 7, 2013, 8:06 p.m.
REUTERS
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov take part in a joint news conference after their meeting in Moscow May 7, 2013. Russia and the United States agreed on Tuesday to try to arrange an international conference this month on ending the civil war in Syria, and said both sides in the conflict should take part. REUTERS/Mladen Antonov/Pool (RUSSIA - Tags: POLITICS CONFLICT)

MOSCOW — The United States and Russia pledged on Tuesday to set aside more than two years of differences over Syria's civil war, saying they'd convene an international conference later this month to try to corral President Bashar Assad's regime and the rebels into talks on a political transition.

Yet even as leaders from both countries hailed their joint strategy as proof of enhanced U.S.-Russian cooperation, it was unclear how their plan might prove effective in ending a war that has become even more dangerous in recent months with accusations that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, Israeli airstrikes on weapons convoys and American threats to begin arming the rebels.

The outcome of more than five hours of meetings in Moscow involving Secretary of State John Kerry and President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov essentially bring diplomatic efforts to halt Syria's violence to a point they were at a year ago. The former Cold War foes said they'd work to revive a transition plan they laid out in June 2012 yet never gained momentum with Syria's government or the opposition. They said this time they were committed to bringing the Syrian government and rebels to the negotiating table.

Kerry said the international plan for a transition agreed to last year in Geneva must not be a “piece of paper” but rather “the roadmap” for peace.

The Geneva plan allowed each side to veto candidates it found unacceptable for an interim government. The plan never got off the ground, although Washington and Moscow differ over the reasons.

Lavrov praised the Assad regime for expressing its willingness to work on a political transition and its decision to establish a dialogue with all Syrians.

Kerry stance was different.

He said the alternative to the political transition strategy was more violence, a Syria that “heads increasingly toward an abyss,” a worse humanitarian crisis and possibly even ethnic cleansing and the breakup of the Syrian state. He said the opposition supports the peace plan and the transition strategy and that it was up to the government to make good on its obligations.

Kerry acknowledged that the final proof of whether Assad's forces used chemical weapons in two attacks in March, as suggested last week by a U.S. intelligence assessment, would go a long way toward determining what course of action President Barack Obama takes. Talking about the U.S.-Russian peace strategy, he said, “much will depend on what happens over the course of these next weeks.”

Lavrov also expressed concerns about chemical weapons' use, but stressed the need for clear facts before any course of action is rashly decided upon.

Neither official spoke about Israel's actions in recent days, which have included airstrikes on what the Jewish state says were weapons being readied for transfer to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Israel's increased involvement has created new complications for all actors in the war, given its long history of conflict with much of the Arab world.

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