GENEVA Senior officials from major powers and regional players failed on Friday to overcome differences on a plan for political transition in Syria put forward by mediator Kofi Annan, with Russia the main holdout, diplomats told Reuters.
"It is over, we concluded the meeting. It is for the ministers to decide on it tomorrow," an Arab diplomat told Reuters after the closed-door meeting ended in Geneva.
"It's looking very bad, it's getting worse," he said. "If there is no agreement, Bashar al-Assad will know he had every possible opportunity to fly his planes and burn towns and the international community will do nothing."
A Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "The Russians are being difficult. We're still hoping for a positive outcome from the meeting tomorrow."
Russia's delegation pressed its own proposed amendments to Annan's text during the talks, Western diplomats said.
Russian diplomats told Reuters after the meeting that Moscow could not agree to a political solution imposed on Syria.
China also has resisted attempts to impose solutions on Assad, but Russia is seen as the bigger obstacle to ousting him. One Western diplomat, leaving the meeting, said it was still "nine against two".
Friday's meeting, chaired by Annan's deputy Nasser al-Kidwa, was intended to lay the groundwork for ministerial crisis talks on Saturday, and Annan began the day hopeful of ending up "with an acceptable result".
"I think we are going to have a good meeting tomorrow (Saturday). I am optimistic," he told Reuters Television as he arrived on Friday morning.
Annan's spokesman declined to elaborate on the outcome of Friday's talks, which started late and ran over time, but confirmed the ministerial talks were still on for Saturday.
Russia proposed changes on Thursday to Annan's plan for a national unity government in Syria, despite initially supporting it, but the United States, Britain and France rejected the amendments, Western diplomats said.
The suggested changes are related to Moscow's refusal to support the ouster of Assad, diplomats said on condition of anonymity. One Russian official said the core sticking point was the idea of "imposing" solutions on Syria.
Annan had made preliminary acceptance of his guidelines for a political transition for Syria a condition for organizing the ministerial talks.
In an editorial in the Washington Post on Friday, he said that there had been "mutual mistrust" among foreign powers but the violence would not stop without "joint sustained pressure".
There should be consequences on the parties for failing to comply with the plan, he said without elaborating.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov began talks late on Friday in St. Petersburg that could be decisive in breaking the impasse, diplomats said. The pair are scheduled to attend the Geneva talks on Saturday.
"This looks like it will be decided in St Petersburg," the Arab diplomat said. "All hell will break loose in Syria if there is no agreement on a political solution."
Helicopter gunships bombarded a strategic town in northern Syria overnight and tanks moved close to the commercial hub of Aleppo, rebels said, but kept well clear of new Turkish air defenses installed to curb Syrian action near its frontiers.
Assad on Thursday dismissed the notion of any outside solution to the 16-month-old uprising against his rule.
"We will not accept any non-Syrian, non-national model, whether it comes from big countries or friendly countries. No one knows how to solve Syria's problems as well as we do," Assad said.
(Additional reporting by Vincent Fribault, Signe Nissen and Tom Miles in Geneva; Editing by Michael Roddy)