World powers have opened a crisis meeting on Syria with the West at odds with China and Russia over how to end 16 months of bloodshed and agree on a transition plan for the country.
Before the closed-door talks started on Saturday, Britain pointed to persistent opposition from Beijing and Moscow to a transition deal, while the United States signalled differences, even though Russia put up an upbeat front on the meeting.
The divisions delayed by two hours the opening of the gathering of the foreign ministers of the five permanent Security Council states as well as regional countries Qatar, Turkey, Kuwait and Iraq.
Before going into the main conference, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met her French and British counterparts, while the Russian and Chinese foreign ministers held separate talks.
International envoy Kofi Annan, who had convened the meeting, had circulated a proposal on a “Syrian-led transition” that could help save his peace process that has been largely ignored by both the ruling regime and opposition since it came into force on April 12.
Fighting has only intensified in recent weeks and rights monitors say violence killed 11 people across Syria on Saturday, and trapped hundreds more in the Damascus suburb of Douma.
Moscow and Beijing were against Annan’s proposal which envisages handing over to an interim government that excludes those “whose continued presence and participation would undermine the credibility of the transition and jeopardise stability and reconciliation”.
The wording appears to imply – without saying so directly – that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would have to relinquish his grip on power for the idea to succeed.
Russia insisted that Assad’s fate “must be decided within the framework of a Syrian dialogue by the Syrian people themselves.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague headed into the talks saying parties had been unable to bridge the gap.
“That remains very difficult and whether it will be possible, I don’t know if this will be possible,” he said.
Hague stressed that for Britain, “a stable future for Syria means Assad leaving power”.
A senior US state department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Reuters news agency that “areas of difficulty and difference” remain, but that an accord was still possible.
The opposition Syrian National Council has expressed grave reservations about any transition process that reserves a role for the current president.
Laurent Fabius, the French Foreign Minister, was to hold Paris talks with rebel council chief Abdel Basset Sayda in hopes of persuading him to take a more accommodating line.
On Friday, Syrian government forces used helicopter gunships and tanks to bombard opposition strongholds across the country, including towns in the northern province of Idlib and in the capital Damascus, the opposition said.
The attacks were reported after Mustafa al-Sheikh, a former brigadier general who defected from the Syrian army, said that about 2,500 Syrian troops and 170 tanks had assembled at an infantry school near the village of Musalmieh northeast of the city of Aleppo, just 30km from the Turkish border.
The mass military deployment came after Turkey amassed troops and deployed surface-to-air missile launchers along its southern border with Syria in response to the shooting down of a Turkish warplane by Syrian forces.
A spokesman for the Syrian foreign ministry did not deny that troops were amassing near the border, but stressed that there were “no hostile intentions from the Syrian side”.