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GENEVA - Russia's determination to preserve its last remaining ally in the Middle East collided head-on with U.S. and other Western powers' desire to replace Syrian President Bashar Assad with a democracy at a pivotal U.N.-brokered conference on Saturday.
Efforts at bridging the Russia-U.S. divide hold the key to international envoy Kofi Annan's plan for easing power from Assad's grip through a political solution that ends 16 months of violence in a country verging on a full-blown civil war, in one of the world's most unstable regions.
Without agreement among the major powers on how to form a transitional government for the country, Assad's regime - Iran's closest ally - would be emboldened to try to remain in power indefinitely, and that would also complicate the U.S. aim of halting Iran's nuclear goals.
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." Annan, a former U.N. chief whose efforts to end the Syrian crisis have thus far fallen short, arrived Saturday morning without speaking to reporters.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague, arriving at Saturday's conference, urged Russia and China, which is following the Russian lead, to join Western nations in speaking with one voice on Syria, though he acknowledged that will be a stiff challenge.
"We haven't reached agreement in advance with Russia and China - that remains very difficult. I don't know if it will be possible to do so. In the interest of saving thousands of lives of our international responsibilities, we will try to do so," Hague told reporters. "It's been always been our view, of course, that a stable future for Syria, a real political process, means Assad leaving power."
Hopes have centered on persuading Russia - Syria's most important ally, protector and arms supplier - to agree to a plan that would end the four-decade rule of the Assad family dynasty. 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 based 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. - have 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 used 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, U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and the European Union, along with 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 Iran, 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 Friday, and then had dinner 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. They also disagree over what steps could be taken next at the Security Council, such as calling for an arms embargo, after Saturday's meeting.
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. On Friday, Syrian troops shelled a suburb of Damascus, killing an estimated 125 civilians and 60 soldiers.
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 neighbor.
The United Nations says violence in the country 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.