The United Nations' special envoy on Syria, Kofi Annan, has met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for a second time, amid a glimmer of hope that behind-the-scenes international diplomacy on Syria may be beginning to yield some positive results.

Expressing cautious optimism after meeting Mr. Assad in Damascus, Mr. Annan said: “It's going to be tough. It's going to be difficult but we have to have hope.”

Mr. Annan added that he was “optimistic for several reasons”. After his first round of talks with Mr. Assad, the U.N. and Arab League envoy had said he had held “candid and comprehensive” talks. He added that he had also met with opposition leaders and young activists.

Convergence

While an immediate breakthrough on a ceasefire has not been achieved, a new convergence may be emerging on Syria between the two opposing camps—one led by the United States and the Arab League and the other by Russia and China. Analysts say the reason for hope is the decision by the Arab League not to insist on the exit of Mr. Assad as a precondition for progress. The shift in the Arab League's position was apparent during talks in Cairo of its Foreign Ministers with their Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. The League had earlier insisted that Mr. Assad should step down, and that a national unity government led by the Syrian Vice-President should lead the transition.

After the Cairo meeting with Mr. Lavrov, Arab officials are optimistic that Russia, which along with China had vetoed an earlier U.N. Security Council resolution, may no longer reject another resolution on Syria that is in the works in New York. Mr. Lavrov is expected to meet U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who will be on Monday attending another session of the Security Council along with some of her Western colleagues.

During their talks, the Arab League and Russia agreed on a five-point formulation to defuse the crisis in Syria. Both sides have agreed that violence must stop first, irrespective of its source. This marks a change in the League's position, which had been that government forces must end violence first. Russia had rejected that contention as, in its view, the Syrian opposition was no longer unarmed and included armed rebels in its ranks. There was also agreement between the two against any foreign interference in Syria.

They supported Mr. Annan's mission, “to start a political dialogue between the government and all opposition groups”.

The turnaround in the League's position appeared to marginalise the grouping's radical wing, led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which had called for the arming of the Syrian opposition and was loudest in seeking Mr. Assad's exit.

During the Arab League meeting, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal and Mr. Lavrov sparred heatedly over Syria. In a veiled reference to Russia and China, Prince Saud said bluntly that “those countries which thwarted the U.N. Security Council resolution and voted against the resolution of the General Assembly gave the Syrian regime a license to extend its brutal practices against the Syrian people”. In his spirited riposte, Mr. Lavrov said Moscow was “not protecting any regimes”. “We protect international law,” he said. “The immediate task now is to end violence, irrespective of the source.”

The Russian Foreign Minister also counselled those Arab countries which could encounter unrest in the future to reconsider Russia's position, which might eventually benefit them. “We certainly believe that all outside actors must be extremely careful in addressing problems which your countries are facing,” said Mr. Lavrov, according to the Associated Press.

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