World powers are meeting to discuss the Syrian crisis in Geneva on Saturday to try to halt the worsening conflict, but sticking points persist on how to negotiate a political transition and possibly ease President Bashar al-Assad from office.
Kofi Annan, the special Syria envoy to the United Nations and Arab League, invited foreign ministers from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council - Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States - as well as the European Union, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar and Turkey. Regional players Iran and Saudi Arabia will not be present.
Preparatory sessions for the so-called Action Group meeting on Syria have focused on what can be done to ensure the implementation of Annan's stalled six point peace plan - repeatedly ignored by both the Syrian government and the opposition since it came into force on April 12 - and previous security council resolutions, including an immediate halt to all violence.
“The Action Group for Syria should also agree on the guidelines and principles for a Syrian-led political transition that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people, and agree on actions that will make these objectives a reality on the ground,” Annan, a former UN secretary general, declared on Wednesday.
However, at talks on Friday night, top US and Russian diplomats remained deadlocked over the negotiating text to agree on guidelines and principles for a transition. The closed-door meeting itself began late Saturday morning, after being delayed a number of times.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters earlier in the week that she had “great hope” the Geneva meeting could be a “turning point” for the Syria conflict if Russia and China agree to support Annan’s plan for political transition.
The Swiss foreign ministry’s special envoy for the Middle East, Jean-Daniel Ruch, felt there was consensus on the need to create the foundations of democratic change in Syria.
“But there were still differences over the modalities of the transition which haven’t really evolved a great deal since the Annan plan was adopted,” he told swissinfo.ch. “The opposition say the transition cannot take place with Assad and the government continues its repressive strategy. That remains the focus of the negotiation.”
Agreement between the US and Russia is central. US President Barack Obama discussed Syria with Russian President Vladimir Putin at this month's G20 summit in Mexico.
After follow-up meetings between the two sides, Clinton met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in St Petersburg on Friday.
But ahead of Saturday’s get-together Lavrov said in Moscow: "We will not support and cannot support any meddling from outside or any imposition of recipes. This also concerns the fate of the president of the country, Bashar al-Assad."
The Syrian president also ruled out an external solution to the crisis: “No non-Syrian model is acceptable because no one but us knows how to solve the problem," Assad told Iranian state television on Thursday.
Riccardo Bocco, a Middle East specialist at Geneva’s Graduate Institute, said Russia was clearly the actor with the most influence over Damascus.
“But Putin will not abandon Syria as he doesn’t want the international community or the security council to say anything against Russia and to take action over a domestic affair in Russia – he’s defending states’ internal sovereignty,” he told swissinfo.ch.
“The Russians also have a sort of romantic attachment to one of the last places under their control in the Middle East in this post-Soviet period.”
But Mahmoud Mohamedou, head of the Middle East and North Africa programme at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, felt the Russian position had evolved over the past few weeks.
“They seem to be moving towards finding a diplomatic initiative; there could be something there to be worked with,” he commented.
Mohamedou, who is also visiting professor at the Graduate Institute, said the Syrian crisis was taking diplomats into new territory, but he felt a Yemeni-style solution might be an “interesting avenue” being discussed by negotiators.
Heavy external pressure forced former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down in February 2012 after 34 years in power, saving the country from a civil war, in return for his and his family’s safety.
But Bocco was doubtful this would work in Syria, which he said was far more complex: “So far no one has offered the regime a way out of the current situation. And if you compare with the Yemen situation, the Syrian leaders are much younger. This further supports the idea that they will fight to the bitter end as they have nothing to lose. What would their future be?”
If diplomacy fails, few observers believe a coalition of the willing will form to remove Assad from power by direct, external military means Libyan-style.
Both Russia and China reject the concept of the "responsibility to protect" civilians from their own governments, a notion the security council invoked in March 2011 when it passed a resolution authorizing UN members to use force to protect civilians in Libya.
“The Europeans are too busy with their own economic problems so couldn’t afford it… and who in the US is ready to open a new front while they are quickly trying to close those in Iraq and Afghanistan?” added Bocco.
Meanwhile, the shooting down of a Turkish jet on June 22 and Nato condemnation is the latest sign of the slow internationalization of the crisis and signal that outside powers may be dragged ever deeper into the conflict.
Inside the country Syria's rebels, backed by covert foreign support, are taking the fight ever closer to Assad with attacks and bombings around Damascus. A recent UN report describes “deeper and more destructive violence” in which sectarian motives predominate.
“If this deadlock persists we could see the “Lebanon-isation” of Syria with confessional battles, divisions and further insecurity around the country,” said Mohamedou.