Russia, U.S. talk as Syria events “accelerate on the ground”

By Erika Solomon

The two superpowers divided by Syria’s civil war met head to head on Thursday, with signs emerging that Russia might curb its support for President Bashar al-Assad and Washington saying events were gathering speed on the ground.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Dublin on the sidelines of a security conference, at a time when rebel advances have brought the 20-month war to the doorstep of the capital Damascus.

“Events on the ground in Syria are accelerating, and we see that in many different ways,” Clinton said before the meeting. “The pressure against the regime in and around Damascus seems to be increasing.”

Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. mediator who convened the meeting, said the two sides had not made any breakthroughs, but would seek a “creative” solution to their impasse.

Washington and its allies have long sought the overthrow of Assad, while Russia has shielded him at the U.N. Security Council. But comments by an ally of President Vladimir Putin on Thursday indicated Moscow may be losing patience with Assad.

Western countries and international officials have issued coordinated warnings in recent days to Assad not to use chemical weapons. In the latest, the United Nations said Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon had written to Assad to urge him not to use poison gas.

U.S. officials say they have seen intelligence indicating Assad might be more likely to use chemical weapons, although they have been vague about the nature of the information.

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

Syria has not signed an international chemical weapons treaty banning poison gas, but has repeatedly said that it would never use such weapons on its own people.

Assad’s government said the warnings about chemical arms were aimed at whipping up an excuse for military intervention. NATO decided this week to send U.S., German and Dutch batteries of air-defence missiles to the Turkish border, meaning hundreds of American and European troops will deploy to Syria’s frontier for the first time since the war began.

“Syria stresses again, for the tenth, the hundredth time, that if we had such weapons, they would not be used against its people. We would not commit suicide,” Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al Maqdad told Lebanon’s Al Manar television, the voice of the pro-Assad Hezbollah movement.

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