DAMASCUS: The chief US and Russian diplomats scrambled on Friday to save a peace plan for Syria in the face of 11th-hour qualms but encouraging noises from Moscow on an international conference on the conflict.
Ahead of a key meeting between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the foreign ministry in Moscow gave a cautious but positive assessment of the conference.
“On the whole, we view the upcoming meeting in Geneva as a positive step in a search for a way to broaden and strengthen the basis of an international consensus,” it said.
It said the meeting should agree mechanisms of a ceasefire and simultaneous troop withdrawal by government troops and the armed opposition so that “municipal authorities can attend to acute social problems of the population.”
Western governments have told UN-Arab League peace envoy Kofi Annan there is no point going ahead with Saturday's meeting unless prior agreement can be reached on his proposals for a political transition in Syria, diplomats said.
With rights monitors saying violence claimed 183 more lives on Thursday, 108 of them civilians, Annan called crisis talks with senior officials of the major powers.
But diplomats said the fate of the peace conference could remain in the balance until the 1730 GMT meeting in the Russian city of Saint Petersburg between Clinton and Lavrov.
The conference, due to be attended by Clinton, Lavrov, and the foreign ministers of Britain, China, France, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar and Turkey, is intended as a public show of support for Annan's peace efforts.
He announced the meeting on Tuesday, having said he would only convene it if he were sure ministers would unite around his plan to end the worsening violence, which rights monitors say has left more than 15,800 dead since March last year.
Russia, the last major ally of President Bashar al-Assad, has objected to a proposal that could limit membership of a transitional unity government in Syria, diplomats said.
Annan's plan, obtained by AFP, said the interim government could include Assad officials and the opposition “but would exclude... those whose continued presence and participation would undermine the credibility of the transition and jeopardise stability and reconciliation.”
Diplomats have said this means Assad could be ruled out of the government but did not automatically exclude his participation. Opposition figures could also be kept out under the same formula, they stressed.
Lavrov insisted on Thursday that Assad's fate “must be decided within the framework of a Syrian dialogue by the Syrian people themselves.”
He said world powers had yet to agree on any final resolution based on Annan's proposals for Saturday's meeting. “There are no agreed drafts. Work on a possible final document continues,” he said.
Clinton, in contrast to Lavrov, rejected any suggestion that Annan was proposing a transition imposed from outside.
“In his transition document it is a Syrian-led transition, but you have to have a transition that complies with international standards on human rights, accountable governance, the rule of law,” she said before heading for Saint Petersburg.
Russia has throughout the crisis refused to call for the exit of Assad and has also defied pressure to stop delivering military hardware to his regime, a long-time ally.
Amid the flurry of diplomatic activity, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was to hold Paris talks with Abdel Basset Sayda, head of the exiled opposition Syrian National Council, which has expressed its own reservations about any transition that does not require Assad to quit.
“The opposition has not yet received the details of the Annan proposal and cannot reply to it,” SNC spokesman George Sabra told AFP on Thursday.
“But its firm position remains that the opposition would not participate in any political project unless Bashar al-Assad is removed from power.”
Thursday's heaviest death toll was in the northern Damascus suburb of Douma, where army bombardment killed 40 people, among them six women and six children, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.