GENEVA International mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, trying to halt the bloodshed in Syria, met senior U.S. and Russian officials in Geneva on Friday, but prospects for a breakthrough were dim.
Brahimi held separate talks with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, whose governments back opposing sides in Syria's 21-month-old conflict, at the United Nations' European headquarters. All three then met together behind closed doors.
A U.S. official said they would focus on "creating the conditions to advance a political solution - specifically a transitional governing body" agreed at Geneva talks in June.
That accord among world powers left open the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, facing rebels seeking to topple him in an armed struggle that has taken more than 60,000 lives. Brahimi suggested this week that Assad should quit.
Syria denounced Brahimi as "flagrantly biased" on Thursday, casting doubt on how long the U.N.-Arab League mediator can pursue his peace mission.
"The U.S. position is clear: Assad has lost all legitimacy and must step aside to enable a political solution and a democratic transition that meets the aspirations of the Syrian people," the U.S. official said, asking not to be named.
Before the meeting, Bogdanov gave no indication Russia would abandon its insistence that Assad must not be forced out by external powers and that his exit cannot be a precondition for a Syrian political dialogue.
Russia is "eagerly awaiting bringing the agreements reached in Geneva to life without damaging the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria and without violating the right of the Syrian people to choose their own leaders," Bogdanov was quoted as telling Russia Today television.
A Geneva-based Arab diplomat said that he expected Moscow to bring some fresh ideas to the negotiating table. "The Russians asked for this meeting, so they must be coming with something," he said. "At the same time, they don't want to let Bashar go."
Winter weather is making life even harder for some two million displaced people in Syria and over 600,000 registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt.
"More than two million Syrian children affected by conflict, or in refugee camps in neighbouring countries are struggling to stay warm and dry as one of the harshest winters in recent years sets in," Marixie Mercado of the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) told a news briefing in Geneva.
(Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman in Moscow; Editing by Alistair Lyon)