The diplomatic push to end the fighting in Syria gained new momentum Thursday as a top UN official endorsed the formation of a transitional government and Russia signaled that it might be prepared to pressure President Bashar Assad's regime to negotiate.
The outlines of any possible breakthrough remain vague, but recent statements by diplomats in Beirut, in Moscow and at the United Nations underline a sense that substantive negotiations could still take place. At the same time, there are emerging fears that the prospects for a negotiated settlement may slip away, as high-level defections from the Syrian government and rebel military successes embolden the opposition to fight to victory.
On Thursday, Lakhdar Brahimi, the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, said that a plan discussed during an international conference on Syria in Geneva in June could be used as a blueprint to establish an interim government with "full executive powers" ahead of elections. He also said, however, that the Syrian government structures must be kept intact, a requirement that is unacceptable to many in the opposition, who want guarantees that Assad and other senior regime officials will be barred from holding office.
"This transitional period should not be allowed to lead to the collapse of the state and its institutions," Brahimi said at a news conference in Damascus, the Syrian capital.
Brahimi's comments came as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke out in favor of a political solution to Syria's 21-month-old conflict, saying that without such a solution, the country would descend into "bloody chaos," according to the Reuters news agency.
Brahimi is scheduled to travel to Moscow on Saturday for talks with Russian officials. The Russian government is also looking to the Geneva plan as the most viable option to end the violence.
Despite the hopeful signs, U.S. officials on Thursday sought to play down reports that a deal on a transitional government might be imminent. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said only that the Obama administration was coordinating closely with Brahimi and the U.N. team.
"We are working with him to end the violence and pave the way for a political transition," Ventrell said. "The United States stands with the Syrian people in insisting that any transition process result in a peaceful, unified, democratic Syria, in which all citizens are protected. And a future of this kind cannot possibly include Assad."
Analysts suggested that it is far from clear that the opposition forces would accept a U.N.-brokered peace plan, noting their recent military gains and growing weapons arsenal.
"The rebels now have a self-sustaining capability," said Jeffrey White, a former military analyst for the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, addressing a forum at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Government forces, meanwhile, are suffering heavy losses and "could collapse at any time," said White, who predicted that Assad's defeat could come "in weeks, or a few months, but not more than that."
A spokesman for the opposition Free Syrian Army in northern Syria confirmed that the U.N. call was unlikely to find support among rebel fighters.
"The proposal of Lakhdar Brahimi is not worth talking about," said the spokesman, who uses the nom de guerre Abu Loay al-Halabi. He added: "Anyone who speaks with the regime is rejected by us. There will be other envoys coming, and the outcome will be the same."
The changing battle lines have thrown a wrench into U.N. planning for Syria. For several weeks, U.N. officials have been developing a contingency plan to deploy thousands of peacekeepers to Syria in support of a transitional government. But some top officials are skeptical that even well-armed U.N. peacekeepers would have the muscle to maintain security.
They have been privately urging European governments to consider leading a multinational force, backed by NATO, to help restore order and deter attacks on Syrian minorities. European governments, however, have shown little appetite for deploying such a force, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
"It looks like the military balance on the ground appears to be really shifting in favor of the opposition, and that we are moving toward a military victory by one side," said a senior U.N.-based source familiar with the planning. "But there will be no cease-fire and no end to violence, which is a much worse scenario."
Even as talk of a political solution seemed to be ramping up outside Syria on Thursday, the conflict continued unabated inside the country, with opposition groups counting at least 180 dead in nationwide attacks.
Rebel forces also said that they shot down a MiG jet near the town of Morek in western Syria. A video posted online shows a rebel fighter firing a heavy machine gun mounted on the back of a pickup truck at an airplane. A bright flash can be seen in the sky before the aircraft plunges to the ground in a large ball of black smoke.
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Lynch reported from the United Nations. Ahmed Ramadan and Suzan Haidamous in Beirut and Joby Warrick in Washington contributed to this report.
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