Kofi Annan warned divided powers that history "will judge us all harshly" if talks in Geneva fail to end the conflict in Syria. Differences between the US and Russia make it unlikely that unanimous agreement will result.
"It is the Syrian people who will be the greatest victims,” said Annan, the UN-Arab League special envoy to Syria, “and their deaths will be the consequence of not only the acts of killers on the ground but also your inability to bridge the divisions between you."
While many diplomats pointed to persistent opposition from Beijing and Moscow to a transition deal, Annan told the meeting that the entire world would bear responsibility for further deaths if it failed to agree on a roadmap.
Annan called the multination talks, which have brought together foreign ministers from the US, Russia, Britain, China, France, Qatar, Turkey, Kuwait and Iraq. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is also present.
Diplomats said Russia opposed Saudi Arabia’s presence because it supports the Syrian opposition and the US and European nations are against having Iran at the meeting as it is a longtime ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The goal of the meeting is, among other things, to 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 US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Following the talks, Washington warned of continued differences in approach between the US 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 vote to shield Damascus from UN sanctions.
The meeting on Saturday aims to find a way to end 17 months of bloody violence in Syria since a nationwide anti-government uprising began in late January 2011. Rights monitors say the conflict has killed as many as 16,000 people.
The UN says violence has worsened since an ineffective cease-fire deal in April.
The AP news agency has reported that 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.
tj, mkg/msh (AP, AFP, Reuters)