Peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi speaks in Damascus, Syria's capital,… (SANA, Associated Press )
BEIRUT — Peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi made a new push Thursday to draw Syrian officials and rebels into negotiations, aiming to revive a plan for a transitional government and elections that faltered because of disagreements over the future of President Bashar Assad.
The effort by the Algerian diplomat came after weeks of both sides in Syria being focused more on fighting. Rebels appear to be making gains, seizing military bases and fighting for control of suburbs around the capital, Damascus.
On Tuesday, the head of Syria's military police said that he had defected, joining a number of other officers and soldiers who have deserted Assad's government. Maj. Gen. Abdul-Aziz Jassem Shallal accused the government of turning into "a gang that is killing and destroying."
In a boost for Brahimi, Russia's foreign minister said after meeting a senior Syrian diplomat that his country endorsed the peace plan originally crafted in the summer, and that Syrians on both sides of the 21-month conflict needed to engage in a dialogue.
However, any effort to find a peaceful solution could founder on disagreement over the role of Assad in a transitional government.
Washington has demanded that Assad go. Moscow has distanced itself from the Syrian president in recent weeks, though it has refused to break with him. But even if the international community can agree, the Syrians themselves might not go along. Assad has vowed to stay in office rebels refuse anything less than his ouster.
Brahimi, who has been in Damascus for five days, plans to travel to Moscow soon for talks. He told reporters in the Syrian capital that the plan signed in Geneva by Russia, the United States, Turkey, China, Britain and the Arab League could quickly end the war if implemented.
The plan called for a transitional government to lead Syria until elections. The document left open whether Assad or his officials could serve in the body. After signing onto it in June, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reiterated Washington's view that Assad had to go, dimming the chances for a united push to bring about a settlement.
"I am sure that the Geneva conference held in June this year includes elements that are sufficient for a plan to end the crisis in the next few coming months," Brahimi told reporters in Damascus. "It was clear in Geneva and is now clearer that the change required is not cosmetic. Syria and the Syrian people need, want and look forward to real change. And the meaning of this is clear to all."
Under the plan, Brahimi said, an interim governing body with full executive powers would be established, with the goal of preserving stability until elections were held.
"This transitional period should not be allowed to lead to the collapse of the state and its institutions," Brahimi said. "On the contrary, everyone should cooperate — the Syrians and those who assist them — to preserve these institutions and to rebuild and strengthen them." Brahimi called for an international peacekeeping force to guard against a new outbreak of violence.
In Washington, U.S. officials said they supported Brahimi's efforts and were continuing discussions with the Russians about the details. They downplayed the prospect of any breakthrough.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met in Moscow with Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad on Thursday.
According to a Foreign Ministry statement, he told Mekdad that Syrians needed a "broad inter-Syria dialogue and political process" to stop the fighting. The statement also reiterated Russia's adherence to the Geneva plan.
But comments later by the ministry spokesman indicated that the Russians were not ready to force Assad out.
"No one has set such conditions, and the Geneva communique doesn't contain this condition," spokesman Alexander Lukashevich told reporters. "There are no preliminary conditions there about [Assad] quitting or not quitting."
His comments illustrated how hard it will be for Brahimi to bridge the differences between Russia and the United States, even as both sides say they are eager to bring peace to Syria.
It will be even harder to persuade the Syrian opposition, which feels that it has seized the momentum.
"On the ground we have progress with the Free Syrian Army every day," said Radwan Ziadeh of the opposition Syrian National Council. "That doesn't mean the Assad regime will end any time soon, but it is clear the Free Syrian Army has the upper hand."
Even if talks start between Assad and the rebels, experts caution, they could go on for some time before fighting stops. Talks to stop the fighting in neighboring Lebanon dragged on for 15 years, said Paul Salem of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The beginning of talks is not the same as a resolution. "
Times staff writer Shashank Bengali in Washington and special correspondent Lava Selo in Beirut contributed to this report.