ISTANBUL Syria's divided opposition leaders have failed to back a plan by their outgoing leader for President Bashar al-Assad to cede power gradually to end the country's civil war, highlighting the obstacles to international peace talks expected next month.
The 16-point plan proposed by Moaz Alkhatib, who resigned as head of the Western-backed opposition National Coalition in March, urges Assad to hand power to his deputy or prime minister and then go abroad with 500 members of his entourage.
Alkhatib's proposal appeared to win little support from other Syrian opposition figures at a three-day meeting in Istanbul to decide how to respond to a U.S.-Russian proposal to convene peace talks involving Assad's government next month.
The coalition is under international pressure to resolve internal divisions ahead of a conference Washington and Moscow see as crucial to hopes of ending two years of civil war which has allowed al-Qaeda linked militants a growing role in Syria.
Looming large over the Istanbul meeting, which began on Thursday, is the shadow of Saudi Arabia, the main Arab backer of the opposition, which according to coalition sources is pushing to have the transfer of power in Syria top the agenda in Geneva.
"Saudi Arabia is not happy that Geneva does not look like it will lead with the exit of Assad on day one," a senior coalition source said.
Opposition leaders said the coalition was likely to attend the planned peace conference, which could take part in Geneva in the coming weeks, but doubted it would produce any immediate deal on Assad's departure.
Coalition spokesman Khaled Saleh said the 60-member body supports "any conference that helps transition the situation into an elective government away from the dictatorship" but would not go without indications Assad is on his way out.
Assad, who has defied Western and Arab calls for him to go, has not confirmed his government would attend the peace talks, although Russia said on Friday his administration had agreed in principle to attend.
Syria's opposition in exile also aims to elect a coherent leadership during the talks in Istanbul.
It has been rudderless since the resignation in March of Alkhatib, a respected Damascene cleric, who had floated two initiatives for Assad to leave power peacefully.
His latest plan, posted on his Facebook page, calls on Assad to step down in favour of Prime Minister Wael al-Halki or Vice-President Farouq al-Shara, a veteran politician who has kept a low profile since the revolt began in March 2011, prompting opposition claims last year that he planned to defect.
Alkhatib said Assad should respond within 20 days and that he should then be given a month to dissolve parliament. Once Assad had ceded power, his government should stay in office for 100 days and restructure the military before handing over to a transitional government "which should be agreed upon and negotiated within the framework of international assurances".
Opposition figures in Istanbul were dismissive.
"He has the right to submit papers to the meeting like any other member but his paper is heading directly to the dustbin of history. It is a repeat of his previous initiative which went nowhere," a senior coalition official said.
Assad and his father before him have ruled Syria for four decades. He has vowed to defeat what he calls the "terrorists" behind an uprising that began with months of peaceful protests. His violent response eventually ignited an armed revolt.
More than 80,000 people have been killed in what is now a full-scale civil war that has dragged in Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas and is spilling into other neighbouring countries.
Washington has pressured the opposition coalition to resolve its divisions and to expand to include more liberals who can act independently of Islamists.
"The international community is walking a little faster than the opposition. It wants to see a complete list of participants from the Syrian side for Geneva and this means that the coalition has to sort its affairs," a European diplomat said.
Burhan Ghalioun, a strong candidate to become the new head of the opposition, said the coalition was likely to agree to go to Geneva because it did not want Assad to gain political advantage from the meeting, although, he said, it was unlikely to produce any deal for a transition of power.
Other possible candidates include Ahmed Tumeh Kheder, a prominent opposition campaigner from the eastern province of Deir al-Zor, which borders Iraq's Sunni Muslim heartland; Louay al-Safi, a professor who has taught in the United States; and acting coalition president George Sabra, a Christian who led pro-democracy demonstrations early in the uprising.