Clinton, other key ministers to meet at UN on Syria, Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Arab Spring

Edith M. Lederer, The Associated Press

The bloody conflict in Syria is likely to dominate public and private talks Monday as key ministers meet at the United Nations on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and challenges from the Arab Spring.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will hold bilateral talks as ministers from the 15 council nations attend an open Security Council meeting to look ahead after last year's Arab uprisings.

Russia, which is Syria's most powerful ally, and China have vetoed two U.S. and European-backed Security Council resolutions which would have condemned President Bashar Assad's bloody crackdown, saying they were unbalanced and demanded that only the government stop attacks, not the opposition. Moscow accused Western powers of fueling the conflict by backing the rebels.

Earlier this month, the United States proposed a new draft which tried to take a more balanced approach, but diplomats said Russia and China rejected it, saying it was still unbalanced.

As he headed into Monday's meetings, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he had three goals: ending the violence and "the atrocities and repression" of President Bashar Assad's regime, getting access for humanitarian agencies, and a political transition.

"We try to convince Russia and China that it is a question of humanitarian solidarity to stand with the people in Syria ... (who) do nothing else but ask for freedom and human rights," he said. "I hope Russia and China no longer will be on the wrong side of history."

On the sidelines, the Quartet of Mideast peace mediators — the U.N., U.S., European Union and Russia — met behind closed doors on the escalating Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is witnessing the worst flare-up in violence in more than a year.

The ministerial meeting, hosted by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, is expected to review efforts to get the Palestinians and Israelis back to the negotiating table, but deep divisions remain and there is little hope of a breakthrough.

Libya's foreign minister will be in New York to brief the council, and Tunisia's foreign minister will speak by videoconference. British Foreign Secretary William Hague will chair the meeting, and speakers will include Clinton, Lavrov and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe.

Lavrov was flying to New York from Cairo, where he had a tense meeting with Arab League foreign ministers. They have endorsed a plan for Assad to hand power to his vice-president, but the Russians are adamantly opposed to any resolution endorsing regime change.

In the end, the Arab League and Lavrov agreed on several points that could serve as the basis for a future Security Council resolution: an immediate cease-fire, a clause preventing foreign intervention, assurances about humanitarian aid and an endorsement of the mission of special envoy to Syria, former U.N. chief Kofi Annan.

Annan left Syria on Sunday without a deal to end the conflict, while regime forces mounted a new assault on rebel strongholds in the north.

Western powers have said they will not intervene militarily in Syria as they did last year against Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. Top officials in Saudi Arabia and Qatar have spoken positively of the idea of arming the rebels in Syria, but they have not announced concrete plans.

Ahead of Monday's meeting, 40 prominent figures from 25 countries, including former leaders and Nobel laureates, published a letter in the Financial Times urging the Security Council to take decisive action to stop the violence, warning that "splits among the international community have provided the Assas regime with a license to kill." It demanded that "this license must be withdrawn."

At the start of Monday's Security Council meeting, the ministers are expected to approve a resolution extending the U.N. political mission in Libya for a year, with a mandate to support the government's democratic transition, help with elections, promote the rule of law and the protection of human rights, assist in demobilizing ex-combatants and eliminate the flood of weapons.