GENEVA: World powers on Saturday agreed a plan for a transition in Syria that could include current regime members, but the West did not see any role for President Bashar al-Assad in a new unity government.
Russia and China insisted that Syrians must decide how the transition should be carried out rather than allow others to dictate their fate, as the two powers signed up to the final agreement that did not make any explicit call for Assad to cede power.
The deal came despite initial pessimism from participants about the prospects of the Geneva talks amid deep divisions between the West and China and Russia on how to end the violence that claimed at least 83 lives on Saturday.
Rights monitors said most victims were civilians and hundreds more were trapped in Douma as regime forces stormed the town in Damascus province.
While international envoy Kofi Annan did not name names and said it was up to the Syrians to decide who they wanted in a unity government, he added: “I would doubt that Syrians ... would select people with blood on their hands to lead them.”
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it clear that Washington did not see a role for Assad in the transition.
“Assad will still have to go. He will never pass the mutual consent test,”she said.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius took the same stance, saying, “It's clear that Assad must stand down. No one can imagine for a moment that Assad will feature in the (new) government, any more than anyone thinks it possible for him to establish a neutral environment” required by the agreement, he said, adding that the transition government “will exclude murderers.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague admitted that the deal was a “compromise agreement” as Russia played up the fact that it had convinced other world powers that it would be “unacceptable” to exclude any party from the transition process.
A long-time Syria ally, Russia is loath to cast Assad aside, even as relations between Moscow and Damascus have cooled.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: “How exactly the work on a transition to a new stage is conducted will be decided by the Syrians themselves.”
There are no demands to exclude from this process any one group. This aspect had been present in many of our partners' proposals. We have convinced them that this is unacceptable,” Lavrov said.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi also stressed that “outsiders cannot make decisions for the Syrian people.”As divisions threatened to scupper talks earlier Saturday, Annan warned at the opening of the meeting that history would not look favourably on leaders who failed to chart a strategy to end the bloodshed in Syria.
A failure to unite also raised the spectre that the conflict that has claimed 15,800 lives over 16 months in the strategic Middle East country could spill over to the region and expose the world to fresh threats, said the former UN chief.
“History is a sombre judge — and it will judge us all harshly if we prove incapable of taking the right path today,” Annan told the five permanent Security Council members — the United States, Russia, Britain, China and France — as well as regional powers Qatar, Turkey, Kuwait and Iraq.
Meanwhile fighting in Syria has only intensified in recent weeks as both government and opposition forces have received more weapons from their foreign backers.
In the single most serious incident, mortar fire killed 30 civilians who were attending a funeral in the town of Zamalka, 10 kilometres (six miles) east of the Syrian capital of Damascus, the Syrian Observatory for Human rights said.
The Observatory did not give any further details on the Zamalka incident but published two videos from people on the ground.
The first showed several dozen people, mostly men waving Syrian revolutionary flags and shouting slogans as they accompanied the funeral cortege, when the picture was interrupted by an explosion.
The second, which could not be confirmed as being shot at the same scene, showed people running away from a cloud of dust that gradually dissipated to show numerous bodies lying on the ground.
The London-based Observatory also warned of a “catastrophic humanitarian situation” in besieged Douma, which “has been subjected to a fierce military campaign since June 21.”
Violence has killed “scores and wounded hundreds” there since regime forces escalated attacks on the outlying suburb of Damascus, the group said.
“More than 100 families remain in the town, unable to flee and forced to take refuge in shelters,” it said.
An explosion also rocked the Qaboon district of Damascus on Saturday and another blast hit the country's second city Aleppo in the north. A further blast hit an oil pipeline in a rebel-held area of the eastern province of Deir Ezzor.
The latest violence came a day after 73 people were killed nationwide, among them 23 regime troops.