By Jill Dougherty reporting from Dublin, Ireland
Amid reports that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may be preparing to use chemical weapons, the United States is making a new diplomatic push to end the conflict that has killed at least 40,000 people.
In Dublin for a European security meeting, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will meet Thursday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and take part in a three-way meting with Lavrov and U.N. Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.
"They had an exchange on how extremely seriously we need to be in continuing to send messages about the red lines and unacceptability of use or loss of control of chemical weapons," a senior State Department official told CNN after Clinton's first meeting with Lavrov in Dublin. "Secretary Clinton thanked Minister Lavrov for his strong public statements on that."
Russia has blocked action against al-Assad at the United Nations, but diplomats say that Moscow, which has insisted there should be no "regime change" in Syria, now increasingly doubts that al-Assad can survive in power. Brahimi has not yet proposed a specific plan to try to end the fighting, but Clinton and Lavrov did work one out in June in Geneva.
That plan, which ultimately stalled, proposed creation of a transitional government along with al-Assad leaving office. But Russia later balked at any U.N. Security Council measure that would include sanctions or military action. Clinton insisted any U.N. resolution "have teeth."
Russia continues to blame the opposition for the political impasse, arguing that it has been radicalized, includes members of al Qaeda, and refuses to engage in any negotiations until al-Assad steps down.
The United States, too, has concerns about the increasing radicalization of some armed factions of the opposition and is moving toward declaring the Al Nusra Front a terrorist organization. Such groups present a dilemma for the United States: Al Nusra Front, officials say, has ruthless and effective fighters that are spearheading gains against al-Assad's weakening forces.
But the stronger the radical groups become, the more the United States worries that the fighting - not political efforts to find a solution - will decide the outcome in Syria. As a result, the United States has been pushing the opposition to unite. That process is unfolding with the recent creation of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.
In Brussels this week, Clinton noted: "Now that there is a new opposition formed, we are going to be doing what we can to support that opposition."
Early next week Clinton travels to Marrakesh, Morocco, for a meeting of the Friends of the Syrian People, a gathering of countries that support the political transition. Clinton said she "will explore with like-minded countries what more we can do to try to bring this conflict to an end."
The Obama administration, while providing, for now, non-lethal assistance, is expected to take the first steps toward officially recognizing the National Coalition at that meeting.