International powers have agreed in Geneva that a national unity government should be set up in Syria to resolve the conflict between President Bashar al-Assad and opposition forces trying to oust him.
Peace envoy Kofi Annan said on Saturday after the talks that the government should include members of Assad's administration and the opposition. But it was not immediately clear what role, if any, was envisaged for Assad.
"It is for the people to come to a political agreement but time is running out," Annan said. “We need rapid steps to reach agreement. The conflict must be resolved through peaceful dialogue and negotiations."
The parties must put forward interlocutors to help him work towards a settlement, he added.
Annan pointed out that "it is for the people of Syria to come to a political agreement. I will doubt that the Syrians who have fought so hard to have independence […] will select people with blood on their hands to lead them."
The Geneva talks were billed as a last-ditch effort to halt the worsening bloodshed in Syria but hit obstacles as Russia, Assad's most powerful ally, opposed Western and Arab insistence that the Syrian strongman must quit the scene.
Annan seemed confident of his plan a few days ago, but Russia refused to back a provision that would call for Assad to step down to make way for a unity government, a stance that could have torpedoed the entire deal.
The standoff continued early Saturday, with the Russians standing firm backed by China.
With talks bogging down, Annan took the step of warning the permanent members of the UN Security Council - Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States - that if they failed to act, they would face an international crisis of "grave severity" that could spark violence across the region and provide a new front for terrorism.
Russia and China have twice used their council veto to shield Syria from UN sanctions.
The US finally backed away from demands that Assad be excluded, hoping the concession would encourage Russia to put greater pressure on its long-time ally to end the violent crackdown that the Syrian opposition says has claimed over 14,000 lives.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted that Assad would still have to go, saying "it is now incumbent on Russia and China to show Assad the writing on the wall."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov underlined that the plan does not require Assad's ouster, saying there is "no attempt in the document to impose on the Syrian people any type of transitional process."
Earlier in the day, Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter called on those present in Geneva to reach an agreement. “Your presence today can and should mark, not the end, but at least the beginning of the end of violence and the beginning of dialogue and reconstruction,” he said.
“No plan can undo the past and the present,” he added. “But it can shape a better future, and lead us to peace and justice.”
The negotiating text for the multinational conference calls for establishing a transitional government of national unity, with full executive powers, that could include members of Assad's government and the opposition and other groups.
It would oversee the drafting of a new constitution and elections.
"Ultimately, we want to stop the bloodshed in Syria. If that comes through political dialogue, we are willing to do that," said Khalid Saleh, a spokesman for the Syrian National Council, a coalition of opposition groups based in Istanbul, Turkey.
"We are not willing to negotiate (with) Mr. Assad and those who have murdered Syrians. We are not going to negotiate unless they leave Syria."
The country, verging on a full-blown civil war, has endured a particularly bloody week, with up to 125 people reported killed nationwide on Thursday alone.
The UN says violence in the country has worsened since a cease-fire deal in April, and the bloodshed appears to be taking on dangerous sectarian overtones, with growing numbers of Syrians targeted on account of their religion.
The head of the struggling UN observer mission, Norwegian general Robert Mood, has also described the 300 monitors approved by the Security Council to enforce the failed cease-fire as being largely confined to bureaucratic tasks and calling Syrians by phone because of the dangers on the ground. Their mandate expires on July 20.
International tensions also heightened last week after Syria shot down a Turkish warplane, leading to Turkey setting up anti-aircraft guns on its border with its neighbour.
The Syrian revolt began in March 2001 with mostly peaceful protests, but a government crackdown led many in the opposition to take up arms. The uprising has since mutated into a civil war.
In a speech on June 26, the Syrian president said the country was now "at war" and that all sectors of the government and country must devote their energies to the war effort.
The United Nations has said more than 10,000 people have been killed by Syrian government forces – activists say 14,000 - while Syria has said at least 2,600 members of the military and security forces have been killed by "Islamist terrorists".
The UN says 96,000 refugees have fled the conflict in Syria to neighbouring countries. This figure is expected to double by the end of 2012; some 1.5 million people need humanitarian assistance inside the country.end of infobox
The Swiss government implemented its first sanctions against Assad, members of his family, Syrian ministers and businessmen in May last year.
To date, it has frozen SFr70 million ($72.6 million) in Syrian assets and applied financial and travel sanctions to 128 people and 42 businesses linked to the Syrian regime.
In June 2012 it toughened sanctions in line with those imposed by the European Union targeting the country’s central and domestic banks. In addition, the import or export of materials for use by the petrol and gas industry, for the construction of new electricity facilities, or for telecommunications surveillance will be banned, as will the financing or servicing of such activities.
Freight flights operated by Syrian airlines into or out of Switzerland will be banned, as will trade in precious metals or gemstones.
In February Switzerland closed its embassy in Syria and in May declared the Syrian ambassador to Switzerland "persona non grata" in a move coordinated with several western countries who expelled Syrian ambassadors in response to the massacre at Houla.
Syria responded in kind, declaring the Swiss ambassador to Syria "persona non grata" along with the ambassadors of several other countries.end of infobox
swissinfo.ch and agencies