MUNICH The leader of the Syrian opposition was expected to meet U.S., Russian and U.N. officials on Saturday at a Munich conference which may provide a rare chance to overcome differences on how to end Syria's civil war.
U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden, head of the Syrian National Coalition Moaz Alkhatib, U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held a round of meetings - but apparently not all at the same table, as the opposition had hoped.
Biden lamented the lack of international agreement - between Washington and Moscow in particular - on how to resolve Syria's crisis. But he said nobody could doubt "the increasingly desperate plight of the Syrian people and the responsibility of the international community to address that plight".
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.
Russia's Interfax news agency cited a Russian source as saying that Lavrov would meet Alkhatib.
Syrian National Coalition politburo member Sadereddine al Bayanouni from the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, who was part of the Syrian opposition delegation in Munich, told Reuters he would also attend the meeting with Biden.
"We will explain our views to them and see," he said.
Syrian opposition figure Hassan Bali, in Munich as an independent observer, called the meeting with Biden "a big signal from the Americans" that they were upgrading support for the rebels. But there was no immediate word from the U.S. delegation on whether that was the case.
"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.
Hassan Bali said such hints at progress might be due to Alkhatib "showing flexibility" regarding Assad and his regime.
But there was no sign at the Munich conference that the U.S. and Russian positions on 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".
Russia, Syria's main arms supplier, has blocked three U.N. Security Council resolutions on the 22-month-old Syrian conflict, which has killed more than 60,000 people.
Lavrov told the Munich conference he believed the biggest threat in Syria was "the possibility that the rebels get hold of the chemical weapons" which he said Assad's government controls. (Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Beirut and Myra MacDonald and Alexandra Hudson in Munich; writing by Stephen Brown; editing by Andrew Roche)