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With war shifting, US, Russia talk Syria's future

Friday - 12/7/2012, 4:12am  ET

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton listens to a question during a joint news conference with Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the government building in Dublin, Ireland, Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012. Clinton was in Ireland to attend the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) conference. (AP Photo/Kevin Lamarque, Pool)

BRADLEY KLAPPER
Associated Press

DUBLIN (AP) -- Diplomatic efforts to end Syria's civil war moved forward Thursday with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton joining Russia's foreign minister and the U.N. peace envoy to the Arab country for extraordinary three-way talks that suggested Washington and Moscow might finally unite behind a strategy as the Assad regime weakens.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said intelligence reports raise fears that an increasingly desperate Syrian President Bashar Assad is considering using his chemical weapons arsenal -- which the U.S. and Russia agree is unacceptable.

"I think there is no question that we remain very concerned, very concerned," Panetta said, "that, as the opposition advances, in particular in Damascus, that regime might very well consider the use of chemical weapons."

It was unclear whether Assad might target rebels within Syria or bordering countries, but growing concern over such a scenario was clearly adding urgency to discussions in Ireland's capital.

On the sidelines of a human rights conference, Clinton gathered with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and mediator Lakhdar Brahimi for about 40 minutes to look for a strategy the international community could rally around to end Syria's 21-month civil war.

"We have talked a little bit about how we can work out hopefully a process that will get Syria back from the brink," Brahimi said after the meeting ended.

The experienced Algerian diplomat, representing the global body and the Arab League, said he would put together a peace process based on a political transition strategy the U.S. and Russia agreed on in Geneva in June. Then, the process quickly became bogged down over how the international community might enforce its conditions.

"We haven't taken any sensational decisions," Brahimi said. "But I think we have agreed that the situation is bad and we have agreed that we must continue to work together to see how we can find creative ways of bringing this problem under control and hopefully starting to solve it."

The former Cold War foes have fought bitterly over how to address the conflict, but Clinton stressed before the meeting that they shared a common goal.

"We have been trying hard to work with Russia to try to stop the bloodshed in Syria and start a political transition for a post-Assad Syrian future," Clinton told reporters in Dublin.

"Events on the ground in Syria are accelerating and we see that in many different ways," she said. "The pressure against the regime in and around Damascus seems to be increasing. We've made it very clear what our position is with respect to chemical weapons, and I think we will discuss that and many other aspects of what is needed to end the violence."

A senior U.S. official said the meeting focused on how to help Syria's political transition in "practical terms." Both Clinton and Lavrov supported Brahimi's efforts, and they agreed to a meeting chaired by the envoy next week that would include senior U.S. and Russian officials to discuss next steps. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because she wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Washington and Moscow have more often publicly chastised each other than cooperated on an international strategy for Syria. The U.S. has criticized Russia for shielding its Arab ally. The Russians have accused the U.S. of meddling by demanding Assad's downfall and ultimately seeking an armed intervention such as the one last year against the late Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.

But the gathering of the three key international figures suggested possible compromise in the offing. At a minimum, it confirmed what officials described as an easing of some of the acrimony that has raged between Moscow and Washington over the future of Syria, an ethnically diverse nation whose stability is critical given its geographic position in between powder kegs Iraq, Lebanon and Israel.

Other administration officials in recent days have spoken about Syrians preparing weapon components of sarin gas. The new activity, coupled with fears that rebel advances are making Assad more desperate, have led to the fear that he is deploying the weapons.

On Capitol Hill, some senators even suggested military action against Assad.

Sen. John McCain told reporters the U.S. should "be ready to do whatever is necessary to prevent" the use of chemical weapons, "including the option of military intervention."

Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad on Thursday accused the United States and Europe of using the issue of chemical weapons to justify a future military intervention against Syria. He warned that any such intervention would be "catastrophic."

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