U.S., Russian diplomats reportedly to meet again in effort to forge Syria truce

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (Foreground-R) watches as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (back to camera) arrives for a group photo at the OSCE conference in Dublin on December 6, 2012.

MOSCOW The Interfax news agency reported Wednesday that the U.N. envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, was to meet Friday with top diplomats from Russia and the United States.

The agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov as saying he would meet Brahimi and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns in Geneva.

The meeting was to take place less than a week after Syrian President Bashar Assad struck a defiant tone in a speech, ignoring international demands to step down and saying he would talk only with those "who have not betrayed Syria."

Syria's opposition movement and its international allies, including the United States, dismissed the speech and Assad's own peace proposal within it as a non-starter. The Obama administration suggested Assad's remarks showed he was "detached from reality."

Russia has blocked several U.N. resolutions aimed at pressuring Assad, but Moscow says it is not propping up his regime. Top Russian officials in recent weeks have given signals they are resigned to Assad eventually losing power.

But in an ominous sign for Friday's talks, Russia's Foreign Ministry issued a statement Wednesday offering some degree of backing for cease-fire plan Assad put forward earlier in the week.

The Reuters news agency quoted the statement as saying Assad's plan -- the one already dismissed by Syria's opposition and the United States - "affirmed readiness for the launch of an inter-Syrian dialogue and for reforming the country on the basis of Syria's sovereignty ... and the principle of non-interference in internal affairs."

It is a matter on which Washington and Moscow will not likely see eye to eye.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met in early December with Brahimi and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Dublin. Afterward, Clinton said the United States and Russia were committed to trying again to get both sides in the Syrian conflict to talk about a political transition. Clinton stressed that the U.S. would continue to insist that Assad's departure be a key part of that transition. Russia has consistently refused to accept that precondition.

Russia and the United States have argued bitterly over how to address the conflict, which began with peaceful protests against Assad in March 2011 and escalated into a civil war. The U.S. has criticized Russia for shielding its closest ally in the Middle East, while Moscow has accused Washington of encouraging the rebels and being intent on regime change.

As the international diplomacy flounders, Syria's 22-month old civil war rages on. The United Nations says at least 60,000 people have been killed, and hundreds of thousands have fled the country for refugee camps in neighboring countries.