BAKU U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a cool response to a Russian proposal on Wednesday to include Iran in a conference on Syria, saying it was "hard to imagine inviting a country that is stage-managing the Assad regime's assault on its people".
President Bashar al-Assad is fighting a 15-month-old revolt by armed insurgents and peaceful protesters, in which, the United Nations says, more than 10,000 people have been killed.
Russia and China, wary of any Western-led military intervention in Syria to oust Assad, have twice blocked U.N. Security Council resolutions which would have condemned Damascus and perhaps led to sanctions to pressure him to step down.
Earlier in the day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov proposed a broad meeting of Western and regional powers including Iran and Turkey to try to keep alive a peace plan brokered by international envoy Kofi Annan.
Iran, Syria's main regional ally, is at odds with the United States over its disputed nuclear programme and other issues. Among other things, Washington has accused Tehran of helping the Assad government to crush anti-government protests.
Lavrov cast the suggested meeting as a more constructive alternative to the "Friends of Syria" forum that groups mainly Western and Arab countries opposed to Assad's rule. The forum plans to meet opposition groups in Paris by early July.
HARD TO IMAGINE
Speaking before flying to Istanbul for talks about Syria with mostly Western and Arab nations, Clinton did not reject the Russian idea of a conference outright but she made clear her lack of enthusiasm for including Iran in any such gathering.
She is scheduled to discuss Syria with Annan face-to-face in Washington on Friday.
"Until I have had those meetings and heard the opinions of those most directly involved, I won't prejudge whether we will hold a conference and who would be invited to the conference," Clinton told reporters in the Azerbaijan capital, Baku.
"It's a little hard to imagine inviting a country that is stage-managing the Assad regime's assault on its people."
U.S. officials argue that it is premature to put together an international conference on Syria unless there is an agreed strategy on how to move forward.
Moscow is under pressure to use its influence over Assad to coax Damascus to comply with a ceasefire declared by Annan on April 12, but never implemented. Russia puts most of the blame for the continuing violence on Syrian rebels.
Western officials see Russian cooperation as vital for the Annan plan or any other moves toward peace that envision a tougher line on Assad.
Russia and China, wary of setting precedents that might comfort opponents at home, oppose forced political change or foreign intervention which they say would worsen the conflict and further destabilize the region.
The massacre of 108 people in the town of Houla last month, which Western and Arab governments blame on forces loyal to Assad, has increased calls for tougher action against Damascus.
The United States repeatedly said Assad must leave power and has called for a "democratic transition." Clinton suggested there might be some kind of handover of power before eventually moving Syria toward democracy.
"With regard to Syria, as you know I have been stressing that it's time for all of us to turn our attention to an orderly transition of power in Syria that paves the way for a democratic, tolerant, pluralistic future," she said.
"It's clear that President Assad cannot, and has failed to, bring peace, stability or positive change to the Syrian people and in fact has worked against all three," she added.
(Writing by Thomas Grove; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)