U.N. Tries To Get Syria Peace Talks Back On Track

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday, saying it is important not to "lose momentum" in the effort to convene a peace conference on Syria. Ban was only the latest in a string of foreign dignitaries who have come to Russia, seeking Putin's blessing for such a conference, expected to be held in early June. There's a lot at stake. Russia has been a long-time supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and continues to supply weapons to his regime. U.S. officials have said lately that those weapons include advanced missile systems for attacking ships and airplanes. If Assad already has such weapons, they could pose a real threat to international efforts to impose a no-fly zone, to deliver supplies to the rebels, or to maintain a maritime embargo.

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U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon met today with Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, hoping to keep a plan for a Syrian peace conference on track. Ban is just the latest in a string of dignitaries who have beaten a path to Putin's palatial residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Those visits come with new concern that despite Russia's support for a peace conference, it may also be providing Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, with weapons that could make it much harder to dislodge him. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Moscow.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: The idea for a peace conference on Syria was first proposed last week when Secretary of State John Kerry paid a visit to Putin and Russian Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov. Ban Ki-moon made it clear that he was in Russia to move the agenda forward.

SECRETARY-GENERAL BAN KI-MOON: We should not lose this momentum generated by Minister Lavrov and Secretary Kerry. There is a high expectation that this meeting should be held as soon as possible.

FLINTOFF: The stakes are high. The United Nations recently announced that the civil war in Syria has killed more than 80,000 people and driven more than 1.5 million from their homes. But there are enormous obstacles to a settlement, and some would argue that Vladimir Putin's Russia is one of them.

Russia has been the primary supporter of Assad, providing him with weapons and technical expertise while blocking the United Nations efforts to sanction the regime or force Assad to give up power. One of the recent visitors to Putin was British Prime Minister David Cameron, who said it was no secret that Britain and Russia had differing views. He added, though, that the two nations share fundamental aims.

PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: To end the conflict, to stop Syria fragmenting, to let the Syrian people choose who governs them and to prevent the growth of violent extremism. So I strongly support the conference that Mr. Lavrov and Mr. Kerry agreed this week to deliver a political solution.

FLINTOFF: What's new about the proposed peace conference is that it seeks to bring the warring parties to the table and clear the way for a transitional government that could represent all factions. The main Syrian opposition is expected to decide next week whether to change its position that it would not negotiate until Assad leaves.

Another concern is that Assad may have less incentive to leave because Russia may have provided him with advanced weapons that could help him fight off foreign intervention. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on Putin in Sochi this week, reportedly out of concern that Russia was supplying Assad with an advanced air defense system called the S300.

Anonymous U.S. officials have also been quoted in news reports, saying that Russia is giving the Syrian government a cruise missile system designed to hit ships. Together, the two systems could make it very dangerous for foreign powers to intervene with air or sea power.

Foreign Minister Lavrov has said that Russia is fulfilling its existing weapons contracts with Syria, but he hasn't said whether the two systems are included. Alexander Golts, an independent military analyst in Moscow, says that Russia rarely announces what specific arms it sells to foreign customers. But he added that rumors have been circulating for several years that Syria's order included the two systems.

ALEXANDER GOLTS: So it's quite possible that Russia delivered this system.

FLINTOFF: That leaves the unsettling possibility that the only way the world can know for sure whether Assad has the weapons will be if he uses them. Ban Ki-moon said today that he couldn't announce a date for the proposed peace conference. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow.

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