World Powers Reach Syria Compromise « Thread Started Todayat 5:46am »
BEIRUT—An international meeting on Syria's crisis agreed to support the creation of a transitional body in Syria that would lead a United Nations-backed political transition, but left open whether and how President Bashar al-Assad would have to step aside.
The compromise agreement reached in Geneva on Saturday still offers the firmest support yet from Russia, a crucial ally of Mr. Assad, for a transition in Syria that could potentially strip the president of his executive authority whether he agrees to step aside or not.
U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, center, speaks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, right, next to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, left, at the opening of talks on Syria Saturday in Geneva.
Doubts on Turkey's Story of Downed Jet Kofi Annan, the special envoy on Syria who convened the meeting, said Mr. Assad's role in a transition would have to be determined by Syrians themselves. He said he hoped to see results from the process "within a year."
But the carefully-worded agreement--after days of negotiations that culminated in Saturday's meeting--appeared to underscore the limited scope for an international, diplomatic resolution to the bloody conflict in Syria.
Officials at the meeting also said any chance for a political transition to succeed rests on the willingness of the Syrian regime and government to cooperate, a dim prospect given the hardened position of both sides as violence surged again this month
Mr. Assad, who has characterized the country's conflict as a war, said ahead of the meeting that he would not accept any solution imposed by international powers.
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More photos and interactive graphics The wording of a final communiqué from the meeting calls for "clear and irreversible" steps toward a political transition. But it leaves open the question of Mr. Assad's fate in such a transition, a compromise reached after the U.S. agreed to back off an earlier draft that suggested certain members of government would have to be excluded from the process, an official at the meeting said.
The U.S. and Russia, at loggerheads for weeks over Syria, each defended their interpretation of the final text after the meeting.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Mr. Assad would still have to go. "We agreed to some changes that we did not believe affected the substance, because frankly, we read the results to be the same. Assad will still have to go," Ms. Clinton told a press conference after the meeting. "He will never pass the mutual consent test, given the blood on his hands."
The statement says that a transitional body would have to be formed through "mutual consent," and could include current members of government. Mr. Annan said he expects the Syrian president to ask him to designate an interlocutor that would then begin talks with a chosen interlocutor for the opposition.
Syria's opposition broadly refuses to take part in a national unity government with Mr. Assad or his associates still in power, and is divided on whether to negotiate with members of government on a transition at all.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov insisted the plan doesn't stipulate Mr. Assad leave power, saying there is "no attempt in the document to impose on the Syrian people any type of transitional process."
Mr. Annan, who convened the meeting to help salvage a peace plan for Syria he brokered in April, warned that the country's deepening conflict posed "extreme dangers" to the region and the world, and reprimanded countries for competing agendas which have locked the international community in a stalemate while often fueling the violence inside Syria.
"No one should be in any doubt as to the extreme dangers posed by the conflict – to Syrians, to the region and to the world," he said in opening remarks. "This is the situation we allowed to emerge," he said.
Violence in Syria has surged in recent months, as the government unleashed heavy artillery including helicopter gunships, and antigovernment rebels became better equipped and more effective. June has been one of the deadliest months in an uprising that began with a peaceful protest movement and has increasingly veered toward civil war.
Syria's opposition barely heeded the talks in Geneva on another bloody day, pointing to the escalating violence in the country as proof of the futility of any diplomatic initiative.
Government forces on Saturday drove opposition fighters out of Douma, a suburb of Damascus, after a weeklong shelling campaign by government forces that intensified on Friday night.
"Bodies are on the streets, no one can bury them or remove them," said Susan Ahmad, an activist in the suburbs of Damascus. Most residents in Douma had fled in the days leading to the apparently final assault on Saturday, Ms. Ahmad and other activists said.
Throughout the day, a handful of explosions were reported in Zamalka, another suburb of the capital, in Syria's largest city Aleppo, and the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, where activists said an oil pipeline was bombed. At least 55 people were killed in the violence, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based opposition watchdog.
The meeting in Geneva gathered foreign ministers from the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council—the U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China—as well as Turkey, Iraq, Qatar and Kuwait. European Union and Arab League officials also attended.
It excluded Iran—after U.S. objection to the attendance of a Syrian ally seen as aiding the regime in its domestic crackdown—and Saudi Arabia, a main backer of the Syrian opposition.
The idea was to bring together the countries with the most influence on both the Syrian government and opposition, to help forge consensus on a transition plan that would then be presented to both sides in Syria.
But the special envoy's opening comments also directed a warning to the international parties clashing over Syria—which have either bolstered the Syrian government or rebel fighters throughout the uprising—to halt their rivalries or risk a much wider conflict.
"Without unity between you, any action by one will lead to the opposite reaction by another, thwarting the aims of either side," he said. "We have already seen this taking place."