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US and Britain cling to diplomacy as way forward on Syria

The challenges the United States and its closest allies face in finding a way to end the violence inSyria were on full display Monday in Washington, with President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron emphasizing the need for diplomacy while expressing doubts about how much it can accomplish.

The US government, Mr. Obama said at a joint news conference at the White House, remains “very persistent” in its efforts to broker a political transition that leads to the “departure” of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

That said, “I’m not promising that it’s going to be successful,” Obama warned. “Frankly, sometimes once sort of the furies have been unleashed in a situation like what we’re seeing in Syria, it’s very hard to put things back together.”

Mr. Cameron for his part decried the “brutal conflict” that has left some 80,000 dead and more than five million displaced.

“Syria’s history is being written in the blood of her people, and it is happening on our watch,” he added.

Both leaders called recent talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin “very constructive.” The West would like Mr. Putin to encourage Assad to come to the negotiating table.

Cameron went so far as to call Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent talks with Putin, with whom he reached an agreement for an American-Russian peace conference on Syria, a “breakthrough” in an interview with National Public Radio.

“Our basic argument is that as a leader on the world stage, Russia has an interest as well as an obligation to try to resolve this issue,” Obama said, adding, however, that, “Look, I don’t think it’s any secret that there remains lingering suspicions between Russia and other members of the G-8or West.”

On the sensitive issue of reported chemical weapons use in Syria, Obama said the facts “will help guide” America’s next steps there.

As to whether the US should arm the Syrian opposition groups, no decision has been made. Some US lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, have said that arming the groups and establishing no-fly zones could turn the tide of the war in favor of opposition groups that support the overthrow of Mr. Assad and, potentially, rebel groups favorable to democratic principals.

Yet there are a number of rebel groups that also support extremist ideologies, US officials caution.

What’s more, these groups may include members of “organizations like al-Nusra that are essentially affiliated to Al Qaeda – that have another agenda beyond just getting rid of Assad,” Obama warned Monday.

“Should diplomacy fail to make tangible gains, the United States may have to accept that it cannot decisively shape who ‘wins’ in Syria’s civil war,” notes Aram Nerguizian, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

US military officials for their part add that Syria is already “awash” in weapons. “The main thing is, will [arming rebels] making a meaningful difference?” asks one senior US military official. “Guns with ammo – they don’t need this.”

Alternately, should the US decide to provide “something more sophisticated” for rebel groups, the US military official adds, “Is it going to fall into the wrong hands?”

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