Fate of today's conference in Geneva is in doubt after Clinton met her counterpart.
ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - The United States and Russia failed on Friday to bridge differences over a plan to ease Syrian President Bashar Assad out of power, end violence and create a new government. That set the stage for the potential collapse of a key multinational conference that was to have endorsed the proposal.
On the eve of Saturday's conference in Geneva, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met one-on-one for about an hour in St. Petersburg, but they could not reach agreement on key elements of U.N. envoy Kofi Annan's proposed plan for a Syrian political transition, officials said.
A senior U.S. official traveling with Clinton said areas of "difference and difficulty" remain and was not optimistic that the gathering in Geneva would produce agreement. "We may get there tomorrow, we may not," the official told reporters Friday as Clinton left Russia for Switzerland, where she arrived early Saturday.
The official said Clinton and Lavrov would try to resolve differences in Geneva out of respect for Annan, the former U.N. chief whose efforts to end the Syrian crisis have thus far fallen short.
The inconclusive results of the Clinton-Lavrov meeting may presage the unraveling of Annan's plan to end 16 months of brutal violence in Syria by creating a national unity government to oversee drafting of a new constitution and elections.
The United States and its allies attending the conference are adamant that the plan will not allow Assad to remain in power as part of the transitional government, but Russia insists that outsiders cannot dictate the composition of the interim administration or the ultimate solution to the crisis.
"[We] agreed to look for an agreement that will bring us closer based on a clear understanding of what's written in the Annan plan that [all] sides in Syria need an incentive for a national dialogue," Lavrov said after meeting Clinton.
"But it's only up to the Syrians to make agreements on what the Syrian state will be like, who will hold [government] jobs and positions," he said. Lavrov predicted the meeting had a "good chance" of finding a way forward. "But I am not saying that we will agree on every dot."
But failing to agree on every dot may well be the plan's undoing, particularly if Russia refuses to accept the implicit demand that Assad leave power.
Annan on Friday laid out his expectations for the conference in an op-ed in the Washington Post. "The future government in Syria, he wrote, "must include a government of national unity that would exercise full executive powers."
He added: "This government could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups, but those whose continued presence and participation would undermine the credibility of the transition and jeopardize stability and reconciliation would be excluded."
Such a proposal does not explicitly bar Assad, but the United States and other Western powers that will participate in the conference said that is obvious and that the Syrian opposition will not sign on to the plan unless it excludes Assad.
On Friday, Syria's opposition reported the deadliest 24-hour period so far in the uprising and said rebel fighters had seized two Syrian generals, one of them the highest-ranking officer to fall into insurgent hands.
The previous day's death toll reached 190 from violence scattered in towns and cities throughout the country. The tallies, including 125 civilian fatalities and the deaths of 65 fighters, were detailed but could not be confirmed independently.
The New York Times contributed to this report.