GENEVA, (Reuters) – International talks on a way to resolve the increasingly bloody conflict in Syria opened in Geneva on Saturday with foreign powers in dispute over the fate of President Bashar al-Assad.
Kofi Annan, the former U.N. chief who is special international envoy on Syria, has been hoping for consensus on a plan for a unity government that, by excluding from the leadership figures deemed too divisive, would effectively mean Assad stepping down.
However, Moscow, a long-time ally of the Syrian strongman and an opponent in principle of what it sees as foreign meddling in domestic sovereignty, has voiced objections to any solution imposed on Syria from outside.
The United States and its European and Arab allies see no way ahead while power remains in the hands of Assad. The U.N. estimates at least 10,000 people have been killed as Assad’s forces have tried to suppress the uprising against him.
“It has always been our view that a stable future for Syria, a stable political process means Assad leaving power as part of an agreement on transitional process,” British Foreign Minister William Hague said in Geneva.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said nothing to reporters at the talks.
He and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Russia met in St.Petersburg, Russia, on Friday night but a U.S. official said differences with Moscow over the conflict remained.
“Our Western partners want themselves to decide the outcome of the political process in Syria although it is the job for the Syrians,” Lavrov’s Deputy Gennady Gatilov said in Russia prior to the Geneva meeting.
Clinton offered no further insights as she arrived for the talks. But Britain’s Hague made clear he expected a day of hard bargaining.
“There is an opportunity for the international community to be much stronger and act more robustly but we can only do it with the agreement of Russia and China,” he said.
The foreign ministers of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council – Russia, the United States, China, France and Britain – were attending Saturday’s talks.
Turkey, Kuwait, Qatar, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby are also taking part.
However, Iran, Syria’s closest regional ally, and Saudi Arabia, a foe of both Damascus and Tehran and leading backer of the rebel forces opposing Assad, are not represented. Nor is anyone from the Syrian government or opposition.
The Syrian conflict has gone from bad to worse since the uprising broke out 16 months ago, evolving from peaceful protests against the Assad family’s four-decade dynastic rule to something akin to a civil war with a sectarian dimension.
Although the world has condemned the ferocity of Assad’s forces’ crackdown on the opposition – including bombardments of pro-opposition areas and mass arrests – it has been unable to halt violence which threatens to draw in more of the region’s religious and political rivalries and alliances.
Annan, who brokered a much abused ceasefire in April, said on Friday he was “optimistic” that the Geneva talks would produce an acceptable outcome. Later, senior officials holding preparatory talks there failed to overcome differences. Western diplomats said Russia was pressing for changes to Annan’s text.
“It is absolutely essential that the violence stops and that a political transition can begin. Kofi Annan made reasonable propositions and I hope that they will be upheld and that’s the point of today’s discussions,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, said as he arrived for the talks.
An Arab diplomat told Reuters on Friday night after a preliminary meeting ended in Geneva that the state of the plan was looking bad.
“If there is no agreement, Bashar al-Assad will know he had every possible opportunity to fly his planes and burn towns and the international community will do nothing,” he said.
Russia, and China, both conscious of the risk of internal revolt at home, have objected to what they see as Western interference in the domestic affairs of rulers like Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.
Western governments, however, have shown little will to repeat last year’s Libyan experience of military support for Arab rebels in Syria, where Assad’s forces are formidable and the complexities of religion and ethnicity much greater.
On the ground in Syria, fighting continued on Friday, with particular tension around the northern border with Turkey, a week after Syria shot down a Turkish warplane.
Syrian helicopter gunships bombarded a strategic town in the north and tanks moved close to the commercial hub of Aleppo, rebels said. But Syrian troops kept well clear of new Turkish air defenses installed to curb Syrian action near its borders.