By Elise Labott, CNN Foreign Affairs Reporter
The Obama administration has gone to great lengths to explain why all options for stopping the violence in Syria are fraught with difficulty. But there is one route that the administration believes would go a long way to changing thinking in Damascus, and the path goes right through Moscow.
As administration officials - from the White House to the State Department, from the Pentagon to the intelligence community - explain, the opposition is comprised of many small groups, and the parts so far do not add up to a united whole. That opposition, which Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, numbered at around 100 different groups, has not united and has failed to rally the entire country against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad.
Arming the opposition would be futile against Syria's strong defenses and could lead to a chaotic civil war that could turn Syria into a safe haven for al Qaeda, administration officials argue. Military intervention, well, is out of the question, at least for now.
Which is why Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been focused like a laser on turning Moscow into a member of the "Friends of the Syrian people," rather than what the United States considers a friend of the al-Assad regime.
As one of Syria's remaining allies, Russia's two vetoes of U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning the regime have paralyzed the council from acting. The U.S. argues this has emboldened al-Assad to continue a brutal crackdown against the Syrian people, and deflated the opposition, too.
The Russians have billions in military contracts with Syria, and Russia's only Mediterranean naval base is there as well.
This weekend the head of the opposition Syrian National Council told Kofi Annan, the joint UN-Arab League envoy for the crisis, that the opposition would not hold talks with the regime on a political transition.
On Monday, Clinton has a key meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about Syria. The immediate goal is to get Moscow to use its influence on the regime to allow access for aid workers to deliver desperately needed supplies. The U.S. also wants to take another stab at a third Security Council resolution and needs Russia's support.
The United States had hoped that once Prime Minister Vladimir Putin won last week's elections, Moscow would soften its stance. President Barack Obama called Putin on Friday to congratulate him, and the two agreed to "continue discussions" on Syria, which the White House described as among the "areas the United States and Russia have differed."
But negotiations last week at the United Nations signaled Russia was as hardline as ever on the idea that the Syrian opposition was not taking up arms in self-defense, but rather is as much to blame for the violence as al-Assad. This idea of "moral equivalence" is what stymied the two previous Security Council draft resolutions and threatens to do the same to efforts to pass one now.
Russia maintains its policy is not to protect the regime or cover up human rights abuses, nor is it about its own strategic interests. Moscow says it is merely concerned about the prospects of civil war, which it has continued to argue, is inevitable if the world continues to push the Arab League's plan for a political transition in Syria. The plan includes al-Assad handing over power to his vice president and, fading from the scene.
This is a similar plan to the one that finally got former Yemeni strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down, where, with a new president just sworn in, it seems to be working so far. It is not inconsistent with Moscow's stated goals of holding Syria together.
There is some fresh reason to hope Moscow may finally be coming around to this realization. In meetings with Arab ministers in Cairo this weekend, diplomats said Foreign Minister Lavrov seemed to acknowledge that a political transition in Syria is inevitable.
After weeks of tongue-lashing from the international community over its latest veto, Moscow may be feeling the heat. Its reputation and relations with both the West and Arab countries have been tarnished by its stance on Syria, and Russia may want to contain further fallout.
But the Russian's are limited in the flexibility.
In Cairo, Lavrov reiterated calls for an end to violence from all sides and urged against foreign intervention in Syria — a departure from the position of Arab Gulf states that have publicly advocated arming Syria's rebels or sending Arab peacekeeping troops into the country. In addition, while the statement endorsed the Arab League plan, it did not call for Assad to hand power to his vice president.
While these concessions could be the basis for a new Security Council resolution, is this the one America wants? Until now, the argument was that the United States could get a resolution passed in New York but not if it couldn't get Russia to sign on to one that would stay true to the Obama administration goal of getting al-Assad out.
While it would be a strong show of symbolism if Russia signed on to a Security Council resolution, a resolution that does not advance the idea of a political transition in Syria would be just that, symbolism.
What's more, the latest draft text floating around the halls of the United Nations does not offer concrete measures that the international community is prepared to take to stop the bloodshed. While the Security Council used a resolution on Libya as a pre-text for the military intervention that helped get rid of Moammar Gadhafi, even privately diplomats say that isn't in the offing when it comes to Syria.
Even a piece of a paper with a Russian call for al-Assad to step down may be too late. Having dug his heels in over the past six months, it is unclear whether Assad would even listen to Moscow or whether he would just compensate for the loss of Moscow's support by bending more toward his other remaining ally, Iran. U.S. officials have said Iran is aiding al-Assad with lethal assistance to continue his crackdown.
But the United States is convinced that if it can remove the Russian roadblock and have Moscow severe ties to Damascus, a path to ending the bloodshed could be clearer.