BEIRUT -- World powers agreed on a plan Saturday for a unity government in strife-torn Syria that does not explicitly exclude President Bashar Assad from a future "transitional" administration.
But U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said after the meeting in Geneva that the plan implicitly signals Assad’s departure, because it calls for "mutual consent" of anyone serving in the transitional government.
"Assad will still have to go," Clinton declared in a news conference after the meeting of the United Nations-backed "action group" on Syria. "He will never pass the 'mutual consent' test given the blood on his hands."
Clinton also said the United States would go back to the U.N. Security Council to seek a resolution that could lead to sanctions if Assad does not comply with the peace plan and transition process.
Special U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, who convened the Geneva meeting, told reporters he doubted anyone with "blood on their hands" would be chosen for the transitional administration — though he did not specify Assad.
"I will doubt that the Syrians who have fought to hard for their independence will select people with blood on their hands to lead them," Annan said.
The transition plan could take up to a year to take shape, Annan said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters that the Syrian people would decide who is in the transitional government and made no mention of Assad being excluded.
The communique endorsed by the world powers also reaffirmed a demand that Annan’s six-point peace blueprint be implemented as soon as possible. Annan’s calls for a cease-fire have been widely ignored, but the world powers vowed to use their influence to force compliance.
The future of Assad has emerged as the major stumbling block in long-stalled diplomatic efforts to find a solution to the crisis in Syria, buffeted by escalating violence in the 16-month uprising against Assad.
The United States insists Assad must go. But Russia and China, both veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council, have balked at efforts to force Assad’s removal as part of a peace plan. The disagreement has contributed to a diplomatic stalemate. Whether Saturday’s declaration will break the logjam remained unclear.
The final wording of Saturday’s communique was revised to allay Russian concerns that an earlier version implicitly excluded Assad from the transitional government. Washington and its allies had wanted stronger language that would have, in effect, barred Assad from remaining in power. But Russia appeared to have prevailed on the point, despite Clinton’s repeated assertions that Assad must go.
The transitional "governing body" will exercise "full executive powers" and "could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent," Saturday’s communique read.
Reaching mutual consent in present-day Syria would appear to be a daunting task. The armed opposition has refused to engage in dialogue with Assad, whom it regards as a murderer, and Assad has consistently labeled the rebels "terrorists" who, he recently told an Iranian television interviewer, must be "annihilated."
Violence has picked up in recent weeks in Syria as rebels battle government forces loyal to Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for more than 40 years. The rebellion began as a protest movement but has morphed into an armed uprising that has exerted control over rural territory and urban neighborhoods, including several restive suburbs of Damascus, the capital.
The Assad government has fought with artillery, tanks and infantry troops, causing numerous civilian deaths, according to human rights monitors. But the rebels have also been implicated in the killing of civilians and executions of prisoners in what a U.N.-commissioned report described as an increasingly sectarian conflict that could have "catastrophic" consequences if left unchecked.
-- Patrick J. McDonnell
Photo: Special envoy Kofi Annan at a news conference Saturday in Geneva. Credit: Fabrice Coffrini / AFP/Getty Images