Should President Assad play a part in the future of Syria? Saturday's conference of foreign ministers in Geneva agreed a plan for a new government, but stopped short of including measures to remove Assad from power.
Should the current leader of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, be allowed to take part in negotiations over the future of his country? Should he even be part of a transitional government until democratic elections can be held?
A conference of foreign ministers in Geneva, Switzerland on Saturday failed to resolve the differences that divide the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Though world powers agreed that a transitional government should be set up in Syria to end the conflict there, they remained at odds over what part Assad might play in the process.
Instead, the participants agreed to a statement outlining "guidelines and principles to assist the Syrian parties as they move ahead with the transition." The basis of this agreement was a new peace plan, which Kofi Annan, the UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, presented last week.
The plan envisages a ceasefire followed by a transitional national unity government with executive control charged with the task of drawing up a new constitution and preparing elections. The participants agreed that the transitional government "could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent," Annan said.
With or without Assad?
The document no longer includes Annan's original suggestion "to exclude those people from the transitional government whose continued presence and participation undermine the credibility of the transition and risk its stability and reconciliation."
This passage referred to Assad and other leading members of the current regime in Damascus - or at least that was the interpretation of nine of the 11 participants in Geneva, including the three western powers on the Security Council with veto rights (the US, Britain, France), as well as the European Union, Turkey and three Arab states - Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar.
The Syrian National Council, the largest political group in the Syrian opposition movement, even goes one step further. "We want to end the bloodshed in Syria. If that means political dialogue, then we're ready for that," council spokesman Chalid Saleh said in Istanbul on Saturday morning. "But we will not negotiate as long as they [members of the Assad regime] are still in Syria."
But Russia and China categorically rejected any exclusion of Assad from a transitional government or from negotiations about the future of Syria. "Our western partners want to decide the political process in Syria, even though that is the business of Syrians," said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennadiy Gatilov.
It is an intractable problem - several hours of talks between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his US counterpart Hillary Clinton in St. Petersburg on Friday came to nothing. As Lavrov told journalists in Geneva, Moscow simply "will not agree to any externally enforced solution to the Syria conflict."
Instead, the Russian foreign minister proposed a further conference in Moscow to discuss the impasse. But this one would include all of Syria's conflicting parties, as well as Iran - as the closest ally to the Assad regime. Western UN diplomats said this proposal was practically out of the question for the US, who had already made sure that Iran would be excluded from the Geneva conference.
In order to avoid the complete failure of the talks, Annan's formulation was dropped in the face of opposition from Russia and China. Instead, the statement said the transitional government should include "members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent." In other words, representatives of the Syrian regime - possibly even Assad himself - should decide together with the opposition whether or not Assad should be included in a future transitional government.
Considering the public statements already made by the Syrian National Council and other opposition groups, this scenario seems extremely unlikely.
Author: Andreas Zumach / bk
Editor: Neil King