Talks on Syria overshadowed by Russia-U.S. split
World powers are meeting in Geneva to discuss ways to resolve the bloody crisis in Syria.Source: Deutsche Welle
But differences between the U.S. and Russia are likely to make it difficult to reach any unanimous agreement.
The multi-nation talks now under way in Geneva were called by international envoy Kofi Annan and are being attended by foreign ministers from the U.S., Russia, Britain, China, France, Qatar, Turkey, Kuwait and Iraq. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton is also present.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are conspicuous by their absence in the list of those invited.
Diplomats said Russia opposed Saudi Arabia because it supports the Syrian opposition, while the U.S. and European nations were against having Iran at the meeting as it is a longtime ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The Geneva meeting will, among other things, debate a peace proposal on forming an interim Syrian government circulated by Annan prior to the gathering.
Saturday's talks were preceded by a meeting in St. Petersburg on Friday between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Following the talks, Washington warned of continued differences in approach between the U.S. and Russia, with some reports saying Saturday's talks were nearly cancelled because of Russia's demands.
Lavrov was far more upbeat about the outcome of the meeting, saying there was "a very good chance" of reaching agreement at the Geneva conference.
The main bone of contention is the implied suggestion in Annan's proposal that Assad should step down to make way for an interim Syrian administration.
The proposal calls for a unity government that would exclude figures that jeopardize stability.
Russia rejects this idea, insisting that Assad's fate "must be decided within the framework of a Syrian dialogue by the Syrian people themselves."
Moscow is Syria's most important ally, protector and arms supplier, and, with China, has twice used its Security Council veto to shield Damascus from UN sanctions.
The meeting on Saturday aims to find a way of ending 16 months of bloody violence in Syria since a nationwide anti-government uprising began in late January 2011. Rights monitors say the conflict has left 15,800 people dead since March last year.
The UN says violence in the country has worsened since an ineffective cease-fire deal in April.
On Friday, Syrian troops shelled a suburb of Damascus, killing an estimated 125 civilians and 60 soldiers.
Death tolls cannot be independently verified, as journalists are mostly not allowed into conflict areas.