Syria talks begin but no letup in violence

International talks on a way to resolve the bloody conflict in Syria opened in Geneva on Saturday.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Picture: AFP

GENEVA - International talks on a way to resolve the increasingly bloody conflict in Syria opened in Geneva on Saturday with world powers still in dispute over whether President Bashar al-Assad can have any role in a political transition.

Kofi Annan, the former United Nations (UN) chief and the special international envoy on Syria, is hoping for consensus on a plan for a unity government that would exclude controversial figures from leadership - effectively meaning Assad would step down.

However, Moscow, a long-time ally of the Syrian strongman and an opponent of what it sees as foreign meddling in domestic affairs, objects to any solution imposed on Syria from outside.

A senior United States (U.S.) official said the talks "remain challenging" and may or may not reach a deal.

"Discussions remain challenging. We're continuing to work on this today, but we need a plan that is strong and credible. So we may get there, we may not," the official told reporters.

The U.S. and its European and Arab allies see no way ahead while power remains in Assad's hands.

Even as the diplomats gathered at the UN complex by the shores of Lake Geneva, the Syrian army rained mortar fire on pro-opposition areas in Deir al-Zor, Homs, Idlib and the outskirts of Damascus, activists said.

Government troops were fighting rebels of the Free Syria Army at several points. Syria's border with Turkey was also tense following a Turkish military build-up in response to Syria's shooting down of a Turkish warplane last week.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 16 people were killed on Saturday.

More than 10,000 people have been killed in the 16 months since the anti-Assad uprising broke out and the past few weeks and days have been amongst the bloodiest yet.

Arriving for the talks in Geneva, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said: "It has always been our view that a stable future for Syria, a stable political process means Assad leaving power as part of an agreement on transitional process".

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said nothing to reporters as he went in.

He and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met in St.Petersburg, Russia, on Friday night but a U.S. official said differences with Moscow over the conflict remained.

"Our Western partners want themselves to decide the outcome of the political process in Syria although it is the job for the Syrians," Lavrov's Deputy Gennady Gatilov said prior to the Geneva meeting.

Clinton offered no further insights as she arrived for the talks, but Hague made clear he expected a day of hard bargaining.

"There is an opportunity for the international community to be much stronger and act more robustly but we can only do it with the agreement of Russia and China," he said.

The foreign ministers of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council - Russia, the United States, China, France and Britain - were attending Saturday's talks.

Turkey, Kuwait, Qatar, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton are also taking part.

Also present was Norwegian Major General Robert Mood, who headed a failed UN ceasefire monitoring mission to Syria and was witness to the violence and suffering on the ground.

However, Iran, Syria's closest regional ally, and Saudi Arabia, a foe of both Damascus and Tehran and leading backer of the rebel forces opposing Assad, are not represented. Nor is anyone from the Syrian government or opposition.

NATIONAL UNITY

The United States and its European and Arab allies see no way ahead while power remains in the hands of Assad.

According to a draft document from Annan, seen by Reuters, the envoy envisages the setting up a transitional government of national unity which can establish a neutral environment for political change. It would have full executive powers.

"It could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups, but would exclude from government those whose continued presence and participation would undermine the credibility of the transition and jeopardize stability and reconciliation," it said.

That proposal is the stumbling block as it effectively means Assad cannot be involved. The Syrian opposition also demands that he is barred from any role.

The UN's Ban, opening the closed-door meeting, underlined the need to reach an agreement "today" and his appeal was echoed by the Arab League's Elaraby, diplomats told Reuters.

The Syrian conflict has evolved from peaceful protests against the Assad family's four-decade rule to something akin to a civil war with a sectarian dimension.

Although the world has condemned the ferocity of Assad's forces' crackdown on the opposition, it has been unable to halt violence which threatens to draw in more of the region's religious and political rivalries and alliances.

Senior officials holding preparatory talks failed to overcome differences and Western diplomats said Russia was pressing for changes to Annan's text.

"It is absolutely essential that the violence stops and that a political transition can begin. Kofi Annan made reasonable propositions and I hope that they will be upheld and that's the point of today's discussions," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, said as he arrived for the talks.

An Arab diplomat had said things were looking bad.

"If there is no agreement, Bashar al-Assad will know he had every possible opportunity to fly his planes and burn towns and the international community will do nothing," he said on Friday.

Russia and China have objected to what they see as Western interference which brought about the downfall of rulers like Libya's Muammar Gaddafi.

Western governments, however, have shown little will to repeat last year's Libyan experience of military support for rebels in Syria, where Assad's forces are formidable and the complexities of religion and ethnicity much greater.

Video posted on Saturday by activists in the eastern desert city of Deir al-Zor showed smoke rising from apartment blocks as explosions rang out, some shaking the camera. Activists also reported shelling in Homs, Idlib and the outskirts of Damascus.

State media agency SANA also reported an assault of the town of Douma, 15 km from Damascus, where activists say more than 50 people have been killed since Thursday.

"The authorities continued cracking down on armed terrorist groups and raiding the hideouts of terrorists in Douma, killing scores of terrorists and injuring and arresting big numbers," SANA said.

Although the government routinely refers to its enemies as "armed terrorist groups", Assad himself conceded this week that the country was now in a state of war.