RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sought to work out a unified strategy on the crisis in Syria in talks with Saudi officials on Friday as further violence stymied U.N. efforts to convince Damascus to implement a cease-fire.
Clinton's talks with Saudi King Abdullah and other officials come ahead of a 60-nation gathering of the "Friends of the Syrian People" in Istanbul over the weekend aimed at finding ways to aid Syria's opposition. The U.S. is hoping to help unify the splintered opposition's ranks while pushing for humanitarian aid and further isolation of Assad's regime.
Saudi Arabia, along with fellow Gulf nation Qatar, has called for a more aggressive approach, including arming the rebels and carving out a safe haven inside Syria from which the opposition can operate.
International opponents of Assad are struggling to pin down a strategy on Syria as a peace plan put forward by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan has so far failed to get off the ground. Syria has accepted the six-point plan, which includes a call for it to implement a cease-fire, but so far there has been no halt in fighting, and the opposition suspects Assad has no intention of stopping his crackdown and is only playing for time.
Assad said Thursday that he wants the plan to succeed, but insisted that the opposition must first commit to a cease-fire as well. Annan urged the Syrian government to halt its troops first.
"The government must stop first and then discuss a cessation of hostilities with the other side," Annan spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said Friday. "We are appealing to the stronger party to make a gesture of good faith. ... The deadline is now."
"Clearly, we have not seen a cessation of hostilities and this is of great concern," he said.
Syrian activists say fresh fighting erupted Friday between soldiers and rebel fighters in the country's northern Idlib province. More than 9,000 people have been killed in Syria's violence since last March, according to U.N. estimates.
Clinton arrived in Riyadh and began talks with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi Foreign Ministry said. She was to meet later Friday with King Abdullah.
"Clinton will hold extensive talks with Saudi counterpart on the situation in Syria and on American efforts to stop bloodbath in Syria," a Saudi Foreign Ministry official in Riyadh said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he not authorized to discuss the talks.
The talks came a day after an Arab League summit in Baghdad, where divisions among Arab nations over Syria were clear. In a sign that they see little hope in diplomatic efforts from the League, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf countries sent only low-level officials to the summit. In the end, the summit issued a joint resolution that held little new beyond expressing support for Annan's efforts.
President Barack Obama has publicly challenged Assad to leave power, but has refused to entertain U.S. military options to achieve that end. Washington has said it opposes military intervention in Syria, fearing that it would fuel an outright civil war that could break along dangerous sectarian lines. The opposition is born mainly from Syria's Sunni Muslim majority, while Assad's regime is backed by his own minority Alawite community, a Shiite offshoot sect.
For the U.S. and its allies, Syria is proving an especially murky conflict and one with no easy solutions. Assad's regime is of Washington's clearest foes, a government that has long been closely allied with Iran and anti-Israel groups Hamas and Hezbollah. Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-led Gulf countries are eager to see Assad's fall in hopes of breaking Syria out of its alliance with their regional rival, Shiite-majority Iran.
But the Syrian opposition is chronically fragmented. The Syrian National Council, a nominal opposition umbrella group based abroad, has limited authority on the ground. Syrian army defectors have set up a military leadership based in neighboring Turkey, but they too have only nominal command over the multiple armed rebel groups inside Syria. The U.S. has warned that al-Qaida and other Islamic militants are also taking advantage of the turmoil, attacking Assad's regime and trying to gain a foothold inside Syria.
And unlike Libya, whose leader Moammar Gadhafi inspired worldwide revulsion, Syria still has allies in Russia and Iran and a formidable army of its own.
On Thursday, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, vowed to support Assad during talks with the prime minister of Turkey, a country which was once close to Damascus but now backs the opposition.
"Iran will defend Syria because of (its) support of the resistance front against the Zionist regime and is strongly opposed to any interference by foreign forces in Syria's internal affairs," Khamenei said. "The Islamic Republic of Iran is categorically opposed to any plan initiated by the U.S. regarding Syria."
Asked what might constitute success for Sunday's Friends of the Syrian People meeting in Istanbul, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, "We want to see as much unity as possible among those members of the opposition." She said conversations also would focus on humanitarian aid and further isolating Assad's government.
That is the same agenda as the first gathering of the Friends of the Syrian People, in February in Tunisia. There, the nations issued an ultimatum to Assad to end the hostilities, but it was roundly ignored.
Despite U.S. and Arab assertions about the inevitability of Assad's fall, the regime has the momentum militarily and maintaining some support among Syrian minorities and even the Sunni business community. Defections have proved fewer than anticipated, and there's little evidence to back Clinton's prediction a month ago about a possible military coup.
That leaves those doing the actual fighting in Syria at the forefront of the anti-Assad resistance, without a clear mandate of support from abroad. American officials say they sympathize with the plight of Syrians who've been forced to take up arms to defend themselves, but they are directing their efforts through a Syrian opposition leadership of lawyers, academics and emigres. And that policy is expected to continue.
Speaking Tuesday, Clinton cautiously welcomed the Syrian government's endorsement of Annan's plan. But Assad now has to make good on the deal, she said, citing the Syrian leader's "history of overpromising and under-delivering" when it comes to pledges of peace and reform.
Clinton said the U.S. and its allies would spend the next few days helping Syria's primarily Sunni opposition refine its vision of an inclusive democracy, to assure minorities still supportive of the government that they'd have a place in a post-Assad future. She said Washington hoped for progress on that front this weekend.
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