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Published: Saturday, 2/2/2013

Leader of Syrian opposition meets with Biden, Russian representatives in Munich

Demonstrators protest with banners and signs during a rally against the 49th Munich Security Conference today in Munich, Germany. The poster in center reads : No NATO attack on Syria. Demonstrators protest with banners and signs during a rally against the 49th Munich Security Conference today in Munich, Germany. The poster in center reads : No NATO attack on Syria.

MUNICH — The leader of the Syrian opposition council, Mouaz al-Khatib, met here today with key representatives of the United States and Russia — who fundamentally disagree on how to resolve Syria's civil war — but the meetings were separate and there was no indication, officials said, that any progress had been made toward a workable plan to bring the violence to an end.

Moscow has been encouraged by al-Khatib's suggestion, which he repeated here, that he would be willing to talk to Syrian government representatives under certain conditions. But European and U.S. officials expect that offer to go nowhere now that al-Khatib's own colleagues in the opposition have attacked it.

The side meetings at the annual Munich Security Conference seemed to confirm the fissures over Syria, including a new disagreement between the United States and some of its European allies over whether to provide the rebel fighters with more powerful weapons.

Senior European officials here said Britain and France were both urging the Obama administration to stop blocking allies in the Persian Gulf, like Qatar, from providing rebels with more sophisticated arms and intelligence assistance.

The officials say that the current Syrian stalemate means that the opposition is not winning, and President Bashar Assad is not losing. An opposition with better military means could break the confidence of Assad and his allies and push him to negotiate with the opposition, the officials argue.

But President Barack Obama, U.S. officials here said, remains unconvinced about the positive effects of further militarizing the conflict. They pointed to his recent interview with The New Republic, in which he said, "In a situation like Syria, I have to ask, can we make a difference in that situation?" U.S. officials fear that the advanced weapons will fall into the hands of Islamists with an international agenda who have joined the fight in Syria.

The Munich conference, in its 49th year, is considered the premier trans-Atlantic gathering for security officials and analysts.

Vice President Joe Biden, representing an Obama administration in transition to another term, carefully made no news in a well-received speech designed to reassure European allies of a continuing focus on European concerns despite the American "pivot to Asia."

And while Biden implicitly criticized Russia for supporting the Assad government, he gave the Syrian opposition little hope that Washington would change its mind about allowing more sophisticated arms to flow to the rebels.

Biden repeated America's demand that Assad relinquish power, which was immediately criticized by the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, as "the single biggest reason for the continuation of the tragedy in Syria." And while Biden listed the $365 million in humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees and $50 million in nonlethal assistance to the Syrian opposition provided by the United States, he promised nothing that would help turn the war in the rebels' favor.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, right, and Sheikh Moaz al-Khatib, Syria's  top opposition leader, pose for the media, at the International Security Conference today in Munich. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, right, and Sheikh Moaz al-Khatib, Syria's top opposition leader, pose for the media, at the International Security Conference today in Munich.

''As the Syrian people have their chance to forge their own future, they will continue to find a partner in the United States of America," Biden said.

He also spoke about Iran, repeating the U.S. assertion that it is willing to open direct, bilateral talks with Tehran over its nuclear program, but insisting that Iran must show that it is serious and that the talks will be substantive. "We're not prepared to do it just for the exercise," Biden said.

The administration has been pushing for months to hold direct talks with Iran, calculating that there is a window for diplomacy before Iran's elections in June. But in recent weeks, Iranian officials have thrown cold water on the idea. Iran has balked at setting a date or location for multilateral talks with the United States and other major powers.

In a sign of the intransigence of the conflict over Syria's future, the U.N. negotiator for the country, Lakhdar Brahimi, expressed pessimism on Friday at a panel discussion. "I am much more conscious of the difficulties, of the country being broken down day after day, than I am of a solution," said Brahimi, who also met with al-Khatib. Al-Khatib — who directs a Syrian opposition council cobbled together with Washington's help, and pressure, to try to unify a fractured movement — found himself struggling last week to tamp down criticism of his suggestion that he would be open to talking with representatives of the Assad government. (His terms of participating were that 160,000 prisoners had to be released and that Syrians abroad could renew their passports.)

But his own colleagues strongly objected, saying that the talks must focus on the removal of Assad. While al-Khatib reiterated his offer here, saying, "As a gesture of good will, we are ready to sit at the negotiating table with the regime but we don't want their hands to be full of blood," he refused to provide any details.

He also called for the West to destroy the government's air power, which would require the direct military intervention that Washington has ruled out.

Lavrov, for his part, expressed the standard Russian position: no international military involvement, no solution by military means, an immediate cease-fire and negotiations among all parties, including Assad. He said that the biggest threat in Syria was "the possibility that the rebels get hold of the chemical weapons" currently under Assad's control.

Fighters in Syria were only vaguely aware of the Munich events. Mohamed Maarouf, a rebel commander from Idlib province, said: "I do trust Mouaz al-Khatib, but I think there was too much pressure upon him to meet the Russians. We were forced to, after the world abandoned us."

Dr. Kamal Labwani, a member of the opposition coalition, said the idea of negotiating with the government was based on a flawed premise. "They want us to consider this regime as a segment of the Syrian community, a legitimate segment that speaks on behalf of people," he said. "Well, it's not true."

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