An international conference has accepted a UN-brokered peace plan for Syria, but left open whether the country’s president could be part of a transitional government.
The US backed away from demands that president Bashar 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 opposition says has claimed over 14,000 lives.
Moscow had refused to back a provision that would call for Assad to step aside, insisting that outsiders cannot order a political solution for Syria.
Syria envoy Kofi Annan said following talks 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,” he said.
The envoy earlier warned the permanent members of the UN Security Council - Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States – that if they fail to act at the talks hosted by the United Nations at its European headquarters in Geneva, they face an international crisis of “grave severity” that could spark violence across the region and provide a new front for terrorism.
“History is a sombre judge and it will judge us all harshly, if we prove incapable of taking the right path today,” he said.
He appeared to specifically aim his words at Russia, Syria’s most important ally, protector and arms supplier. The US has been adamant that Assad should not be allowed to remain in power at the top of the transitional government, and there is little chance that the fragmented Syrian opposition would go along with any plan that does not explicitly say he must go.
“While many spoke of united support for one ... some simultaneously took national or collective initiatives of their own, undermining the process. This has fuelled uncertainty in Syria, in turn fuelling the flames of violence,” Mr Annan said. “By being here today, you suggest the intention to show that leadership. But can you, can we follow through?”
He said that “the way things have been going thus far – we are not helping anyone. Let us break this trend and start being of some use.”
Foreign ministers were rushed from luxury sedans into the elegant and sprawling Palais des Nations along with their legions of diplomats and aides and envoys from Europe, Turkey and three Arab countries representing groups within the Arab League.
Russia and China, which has followed Russia’s lead on Syria, have twice used their council veto to shield Syria from UN sanctions.
Major regional players Iran and Saudi Arabia were not invited. The Russians objected to the Saudis, who support the Syrian opposition. The US objected to Iran, which supports Assad’s regime.
Syria, verging on a full-blown civil war, has endured a particularly bloody week, with up to 125 people reported killed nationwide on Thursday alone.
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.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the Syria plan agreed to by the major powers “paves the way for a post-Assad” government.
She said that Assad “will still have to go, he will never pass the mutual consent test given the blood on his hands”.
She said that it is now “incumbent on Russia and China to show Assad the writing on the wall”.