By Jill Dougherty
On Syria, Russia and the United States agree on one thing: The only way the civil war can be solved is politically with a transitional government.
But there's the rub: the U.S. insists president Bashar al-Assad can't be part of that government; Russia says it's up to the Syrians to decide, but the opposition won't deal with any government that includes al-Assad.
No matter how many meetings Moscow and Washington have, they get hung up on this crucial point. But now U.S. diplomats say they're not waiting. They're trying to foster creation of a transitional government on the ground, even before al-Assad might go. As State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland puts it: "Creating de facto, particularly in liberated areas, the Syria of the future that the Syrian people want."
Nuland describes it as "both a top-down process and a bottom-up process happening at the same time in Syria."
Bottom-up, local coordinating councils are taking over and providing services to residents in towns and villages liberated from government control.
Nuland says the Syrian Opposition Coalition is "beginning to identify specialists within its ranks who can do things like ensure that the lights stay on, that citizen security can be restored, that food and water and power and jobs can be delivered, that fire services stay in place, that hospitals run - these kinds of things."
As part of the top-down approach, U.S. diplomats say the Syrian Opposition Coalition has contacts with technocrats working in the ministries of the central government who, as Nuland explains, "don't have blood on their hands" but "quietly oppose what the regime is up to."
These government workers, they say, may oppose al-Assad but don't want the Syrian state to collapse.
"So the degree to which we can be helpful in supporting the Syrian Opposition Coalition's efforts to get folks ready to maintain the functions of the state (and) can connect them to people inside Syria, whether they are at the federal level or whether they're at the local level ... we stand a better chance of the state not fracturing," Nuland said.
Will it work? If it does, U.S. diplomats hope it could allay some of Russia's fears about a chaotic end if al-Assad is violently pushed from office.
Will it work in time?
"We'll just have to see how this goes forward... but we're not going to wait for this process to be completed to get started on support for a better Syria inside Syria," Nuland said.