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Syria needs "proxy peace" to replace proxy war, top EU diplomat says

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Syria needs a “proxy peace” supported by the international community instead of the proxy war that has raged for six years and killed some 320,000 people, top European Union diplomat Federica Mogherini said on Tuesday.

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The war has displaced millions and continues unabated, largely due to the international community’s failure to agree on how to end it, with the United States and Russia, and their respective regional allies, backing rival sides.

EU capital Brussels will host an international conference on Syria on April 5, hoping to create a new momentum. It has, however, long played only a marginal role in international efforts to resolve the conflict.

Mogherini has for months been talking to Middle East players including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Lebanon, seeking to find a minimum common ground between them on what the future peace could look like.

“I believe there can be a space for all international players and especially all regional actors... (to) see that it’s far more convenient at this moment to turn this into a proxy peace and allow Syria to restart somehow with a political transition that will be needed,” Mogherini told reporters.

EU officials say the Middle East states agreed they did not want a frozen conflict in Syria or have it break apart, as it would continue to feed instability on their doorstep for years.

Propped up by Russia’s increasing military involvement, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appears to have the upper hand in the war, which has also allowed radical Islamists to flourish.

The massive exodus of people has affected the EU directly, as it took in some 1.6 million refugees - mostly from Syria - and migrants in 2014-16.

New U.S. President Donald Trump’s focus on fighting terrorism first and foremost suggests Washington’s backing for the opposition and rebels fighting Assad could weaken with time.

The EU now acknowledges that, should the war go on, it would lead to the break-up of Syria along sectarian lines or see Assad regain military control of the whole of the country.

The 28-nation bloc, which Mogherini said has spent 9.4 billion euros on various Syria-related projects over the last six years, has threatened not to pay for reconstruction work should Moscow and Damascus crush the Western-backed opposition entirely.

The bloc sees the U.N.-led talks as an alternative to “continued conflict or continued autocratic rule” and says the post-war Syria should be democratic and give wide political representation to its various social groups.

The comments from Mogherini, who will present her thoughts to a meeting of EU foreign ministers on April 3, come on the same day that separate, Russia-led talks on Syria broke down due to a boycott by rebel forces backed by Turkey.

Editing by Hugh Lawson