US, Russia bridge gap on Syria ahead of Geneva talks

Russia reported finding agreement with the United States on Syria and voiced optimism that crucial Geneva talks Saturday could bring a shift toward peace after 16 months of bloodshed.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hosted US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for private talks and a dinner Friday that may well play a decisive role in how a transition government in Syria will look at a future date.

Lavrov appeared in good spirits after the meeting -- a dramatic shift in tone from fuming remarks a day earlier that sent some diplomats questioning if the Geneva meet of world and regional powers would even go ahead.

Russia's top diplomat said he had now "detected a shift" in Washington's approach to ending the brutal confrontation that no longer involved a specific demand for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

"There were no ultimatums. Not a word was said about the document now being discussed in Geneva being completely untouchable," Lavrov said in reference to wording that appeared to suggest no future role for Assad.

"I can confidently say that we have a very good chance tomorrow in Geneva to find a common denominator and mark a path forward," he told reporters.

International envoy Kofi Annan had earlier circulated a draft proposal for a transition government that could help save his tattered peace process and put an end to talk of possible foreign military intervention in the crisis.

Fighting has only intensified in recent weeks and rights monitors said more than 230 people -- most of them civilians -- had been killed across the strategic Middle East country since Thursday.

Lavrov said it was instrumental for the meeting to agree a ceasefire and simultaneous troop withdrawal by regime troops and the armed opposition so that "municipal authorities can attend to acute social problems of the population."

The US account of the meeting was more measured and appeared to suggest only limited agreement to the best approach toward Assad.

A senior US State Department official noted some progress while conceding that "there were still areas of difficulty and difference" between the approaches of Russia and the United States.

"But out of respect to (international peace envoy) Kofi Annan, they agreed we should all go to Geneva tomorrow to try to produce a result."

Annan's proposal would hand power to an interim Syrian team without those "whose continued presence and participation would undermine the credibility of the transition and jeopardise stability and reconciliation".

The wording appears to imply -- without saying so directly -- that Assad would have to relinquish his grip on the presidency for the idea to succeed.

Russia has recently cooled toward the regime while still providing its old ally with weapons and insisting that only the Syrians themselves can find a lasting solution to bloodshed that monitors say has claimed 15,800 lives.

Lavrov on Thursday rejected the notion that Russia was now ready to accept a prescription for the crisis "dictated from abroad" and reaffirmed that view following his meeting with Clinton.

He appeared to suggest on Friday that Clinton had washed her hands clean of a foreign-dictated solution to the crisis.

"We agreed to find a consensus that rests on a clear understanding... that the Syrian sides must be stimulated toward dialogue, but that the decision to what the state looks like and who occupies which posts can only be decided by the Syrians themselves."

But the comments appear more of a diplomatic nuance that a sign that the sides' approaches to Syria had become that much closer.

Clinton had earlier rejected the very suggestion that Annan was proposing a transition imposed from outside.

"In his transition document it is a Syrian-led transition, but you have to have a transition that complies with international standards on human rights, accountable governance, the rule of law," she said before her talks with Lavrov.

Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov early on Saturday tweeted that experts in Geneva had thus far failed to agree to the wording of a final document on Syria because "the Western partners want to determine the political process themselves."

The United States and regional powers such as Turkey are under pressure not only from Russia but also members of the rebel resistance themselves.

The Syrian National Council has expressed grave reservations about any transition process that reserves a role for Assad.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was to hold Paris talks with rebel council chief Abdel Basset Sayda in hopes of persuading him to take a more accommodating line.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said some 4,700 of the more than 15,800 people killed since the uprising broke out since the UN-backed ceasefire brokered by Annan entered force.

Tensions have been soaring still further with the Syria's downing of a Turkish warplane and subsequent reports of regime forces massing near its neighbour's borders in preparation for possible retribution attack.

The head of the rebels' Free Syrian Army told AFP that 2,500 Syrian soldiers were "massing 15 kilometres or slightly more (10 miles) from the Turkish border" on Friday.

A Syrian foreign ministry spokesman did not deny the report when contacted by AFP while stressing there were "no hostile intentions from the Syrian side."

Regime forces were also on Friday reported to have pounded the Damascus suburb of Douma and the central city of Homs.

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