UNITED NATIONS Western and Arab states demanding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's exit are under pressure to produce a plan to make that happen, but their unwillingness to act outside a deadlocked U.N. Security Council leaves them looking fractured and powerless.
Foreign ministers and senior diplomats from the "Friends of Syria" - a group that includes the United States, France, Saudi Arabia and Turkey - are due to meet in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly on Friday.
"I just expect ideas to be presented. There will be no concrete plans," Arab League Secretary General Nabil El-Erabi told Reuters. "Governments are not ready to put plans into action and the Security Council is not agreeing on anything."
The 18-month uprising against Assad's rule has killed around 30,000 people, according to activists. The protests have further escalated into an armed insurgency fighting with sectarian overtones that could drag in regional powers.
The General Assembly this week highlighted the global stalemate, with most of the 193-states condemning events in Syria but showing no substance behind their rhetoric.
Russia, which has three times vetoed a Security Council resolution on Syria, stuck to its position: Assad's departure should not be a precondition for a political transition and under no circumstances will it support a U.N. resolution that could lead to military intervention.
Painting a bleak picture of mediation efforts, U.N.-Arab League representative Lakhdar Brahimi told the Security Council that the situation in Syria is worsening and Assad's government is clinging to the hope of returning to the past. Five weeks into the job, he admitted he had no plan but "a few ideas."
Opponents of the Syrian president look less united in their approach. Qatar, one of Assad's strongest critics, called for an alternative plan and once again urged Arab states to create a regional force to stop the bloodshed.
But Saudi Arabian and Egyptian diplomats, representing the two countries most likely to compose such a force, told Reuters Qatar's plans are unrealistic.
Egypt, under new Islamist President Mohamed Mursi, tried to bring together Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran - Assad's main ally in the region - for talks on finding a solution, but failed to get them around the table for the second time.
President Barack Obama, preoccupied with his re-election bid on November 6, barely mentioned Syria in his address to delegates. Former colonial power France urged the U.N. to protect areas "liberated" in Syria, but officials acknowledged behind the scenes the calls were essentially symbolic.
Most nations, including Russia and China, agree on the principles of a previously proposed six-point peace plan and framework of an accord struck in Geneva between the permanent members of the Security Council.
Both those plans are stillborn unless an agreement with Russia can be struck on how to ensure they are implemented.
"Unfortunately, all these mediations have failed," Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told Reuters. "We all support Lakhdar Brahimi, but we have learned that there must be a stronger mandate given to the special representative."
He said the Friends of Syria was created to defend the rights of the Syrian people and not to undermine the United Nations. The group now seems as hamstrung as the Security Council.
Western and Arab diplomats describe Friday's meeting as an opportunity to "exchange ideas." The session will assess efforts to create an all-inclusive transitional government and increase humanitarian and non-lethal aid to the opposition.
France and Turkey have also called for no-fly zones patrolled by foreign aircraft to protect rebel-held areas. With the United States lukewarm, the proposal remains just an idea.
"We have obviously never at any point taken anything off the table," a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said ahead of Friday's meeting. "We believe that there is still room for a negotiated transition that leads to an interim government and ultimately to a new Syria. This is not about drawing red lines."
One senior Gulf Arab diplomat echoed the U.S. position, warning against any direct military intervention. He said Arab states see the United States as key to breaking the deadlock.
"Going through legitimate channels to resolve the issue is the best path to take; any action taken by individual countries will only lead to more violence," he said.
"The U.S. is the only country that could force Russia to change its position," the diplomat said, adding that he sees no real move on the crisis until after the U.S. election.
With the main political opposition bodies fragmented, the Friends of Syria's main push could centre on developing contacts with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), particularly as its fighters oust Assad's forces from significant portions of the country.
Western European powers have ruled out supplying weapons to lightly armed Syrian rebels, but France is increasing its links with insurgents. "The more the opposition advances the easier it will become," the Arab League's El-Arabi said.
Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been overseeing cross-border movements from a secret liaison centre in Turkey. Turkey denies any direct involvement in sending arms across the frontier. U.N. diplomats say Saudi Arabia and Qatar have transferred weapons to rebels.
"The Friends of Syria can't do much," said a Paris-based Arab diplomat. "It's sit, wait and hope the rebels gain ground."
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