GENEVA — Russian's desire to keep its last remaining ally in the Middle East collided head-long with the United States' desire to remove President Bashar Assad and replace him with a democracy at a pivotal United Nations-brokered conference Saturday seeking a political solution to the violence in Syria.
Efforts at bridging the Russian-U.S. divide over Syria held the key to international envoy Kofi Annan's plan for easing power away from Assad's grip and ending 16 months of horrific violence in Syria before it erupts into full-blown civil war.
Without agreement among the major powers on how to form a transitional government for Syria, Assad's regime which is Iran's closest ally would be emboldened to try to remain in power indefinitely — and that would also complicate the U.S. aim of preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.
At talks Friday night, top U.S. and Russian diplomats remained deadlocked over the negotiating text to agree on guidelines and principles for "a Syria-led transition."
Hopes have centered on persuading Russia, which is Syria's most important ally, protector and supplier of arms, to agree to a plan that would end the Assad family dynasty that has ruled Syria for more than four decades. But the Russians want Syria alone to be the master of its fate, at a time when Assad's regime and the opposition are increasingly bitterly polarized.
"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 Syrian opposition groups 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 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.
But the text that would serve as the framework for Annan's peace efforts also would "exclude from government those whose continued presence and participation would undermine the credibility of the transition and jeopardize stability and reconciliation."
Foreign ministers from all five of the permanent, veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the U.S. — converged at the U.N.'s European headquarters in the sprawling Palais des Nations overlooking Lake Geneva and Mont Blanc. Russia and China have twice use their council veto to shield Syria from U.N. sanctions.
For his "Action Group on Syria," U.N.-Arab League envoy Annan also invited Turkey, the U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, the European Union and Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar as heads of three groups within the League of Arab States.
Major regional players Iran and Saudi Arabia were not invited. The Russians objected to the Saudis, who support the Syrian opposition. The U.S. objected to the Islamic Republic, which supports Assad's regime.
Much of the work remains to be hammered out by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who met for an hour in St. Petersburg before sharing dinner Friday before Clinton left Russia. Lavrov predicted the meeting had a "good chance" of finding a way forward, despite the grim conditions on the ground.
Russia insists that outsiders cannot order a political solution for Syria, while the U.S. is adamant that Assad should not be allowed to remain in power at the top of the transitional government.
But Clinton said Thursday in Riga, Latvia, that all participants in the Geneva meeting, including Russia, were on board with the transition plan. She told reporters that the invitations made clear that representatives "were coming on the basis of (Annan's) transition plan."
The uprising in Syria since March of last year has killed some 14,000 people and Syria has shot down a Turkish warplane. Turkey has responded by setting up anti-aircraft guns on its border with Syria. On Friday, Syrian troops shelled a suburb of Damascus, killing an estimated 125 civilians and 60 soldiers.
The United Nations says the violence in Syria 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 increasing militarization of both sides in the conflict has Syria heading toward civil war.