Senior U.S., Russian and U.N. officials, along with the Syrian opposition are expected to meet at a security conference in Munich on Saturday in a rare opportunity for talks to end the bloody crisis in Syria.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Syrian opposition chief Moaz al-Khatib, and also see U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi in Munich, the White House said.
Biden lamented the lack of international agreement - between Washington and Moscow in particular - on how to resolve Syria’s crisis. But nobody could doubt "the increasingly desperate plight of the Syrian people and the responsibility of the international community to address that plight," he said.
Government forces and rebels clashed again in several areas of Syria including around Damascus but there were no reports of casualties, according to activists and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Biden stressed the need to make the Syrian opposition "more inclusive and cohesive", as dramatised by a challenge on Friday to Alkhatib’s authority after he broke ranks to say he would be willing to meet Syrian officials to discuss a transition if political prisoners arrested in the revolt were freed.
The Syrian opposition had raised hopes that there could be three-way or four-way meetings at the Munich Security Conference with the United States, Russia and United Nations on Saturday, but U.N. and Russian officials rushed to play this down.
"Media reports of a meeting in Munich in the format of Lavrov-Biden-Brahimi and Syrian opposition representative Alkhatib do not correspond with reality," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said.
But one European official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said U.N. envoy Brahimi was still trying to set up a four-way meeting on Saturday.
"Tyrant" must go
Brahimi told the conference in the southern German city he was pessimistic about the chances of a quick solution.
"I am much more conscious of the difficulties, of the country being broken down day after day, than I am of a solution," he said, speaking at a panel alongside Alkhatib.
Neither the Syrian people nor the countries of the region were able to find a way to end the conflict, Brahimi said, meaning it was up to "the wider international world" and U.N. Security Council members to overcome their divisions on Syria.
"You are the last appeal," he told the conference.
"Please do your job."
One high-level member of the Syrian opposition coalition told Reuters that Russia may be softening towards a meeting with Alkhatib after he said he was willing to hold talks with the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
A Russian diplomatic source did not rule out a meeting taking place "spontaneously" at the weekend Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.
If this occurred, it would be the first time the United States and Russia, at loggerheads over whether Assad can have a role in a transitional government, had sat down together with the opposition.
There was no sign at the Munich conference that their positions on the fate of Assad were getting any closer.
"The persistence of those who say that priority number one is the removal of Assad is the single biggest reason for the continuing tragedy in Syria," said Lavrov.
Biden said the White House was "convinced that President Assad, a tyrant hell-bent on clinging to power, is no longer fit to lead Syrian people and he must go."
In a surprise move Wednesday, Khatib announced he was ready for dialogue with officials of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime subject to conditions, including that “160,000 detainees” are released.
But the opposition Syrian National Coalition said on Thursday that any talks on the country’s political future must be about the departure of the regime of Assad.
Asked what Khatib would ask of the U.S. and other governments, he said, speaking through an interpreter, “everything you would provide us with to end the injustice is acceptable.”
“The Syrian people are living a tragedy right now,” he added.
He called for “some kind of electronic interference” to prevent the aircraft of the regime shelling the Syrian people.
“If that doesn’t work I would demand to destroy the planes and weapons of the Syrian regime because it is just not acceptable for the international community to be a bystander just watching what’s happening to the Syrian people,” he said.
“We hate war, we do not advocate war... I am warning if this crisis persists it would have grave ramifications on the whole region,” he added.