MOSCOW — The international mediator seeking peace in Syria warned of "hell" if no deal is struck to end 21 months of bloodshed, but his talks in Russia capping a week of intense diplomacy brought no sign of a breakthrough.
UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov both said there was still a chance for a negotiated solution to the conflict, which has killed more than 44,000 people and set world powers against one another.
But Lavrov firmly repeated Russia's stance that President Bashar al-Assad's exit cannot be a precondition for a political solution, saying that such demands were "wrong" and that the opposition's refusal to talk to the government was a "dead end".
"If the only alternative is really hell or a political process. then all of us must work ceaselessly for a political process," Brahimi said. "It is difficult, it is very complicated but there is no other choice."
Lavrov issued a similar exhortation in a joint appearance at an ornate mansion where he meets foreign dignitaries, saying: "The chance for a political settlement remains and it is our obligation to make maximal use of that chance."
But Lavrov, whose country has vetoed three UN Security Council resolutions meant to put pressure on Assad, gave no indication it would back down from that stance.
"When the opposition says only Assad's exit will allow it to begin a dialogue about the future of its own country, we think this is wrong, we think this is rather counterproductive," he said. "The costs of this precondition are more and more lives of Syrian citizens."
Russia has tried to distance itself from Assad for months and seems to have stepped up its calls for a peaceful resolution as the rebels have gained ground against government forces in the conflict, which has began with peaceful protests in March 2011 but which has descended into a civil war.
However, Lavrov noted that Assad has said publicly and privately that he would not go, adding that Russia "does not have the ability to change this".
Brahimi is trying to build on a plan agreed in Geneva in June by the United States, Russia and other powers that called for a transitional government but left Assad's role unclear.
"The core of that political process … is and must be the Geneva agreement," said Brahimi, who took over as the UN-Arab League envoy after Kofi Annan quit in frustration at divisions among world powers, chiefly the United States and Russia, and the failure of the Geneva accord to bring a resolution closer.
"There may be one or two little adjustments to make here and there, but it is a reasonable basis for a political process that will help the Syrian people," he said, without elaborating.
Brahimi, who met Assad and others on a five-day trip to Syria this week, is to meet senior U.S. and Russian diplomats together in the coming weeks, after two such meetings this month that produced no signs of a breakthrough.
In Damascus on Thursday, Brahimi called for a transitional government to rule until elections in Syria and said only substantial change would meet demands of ordinary Syrians, but did not specify who could be part of such a body.
A spokesman for the opposition National Coalition said on Friday the coalition "will not negotiate with the Assad regime", and its leader rebuffed Russia's first invitation for talks, demanding that Lavrov apologise for Russia's support for Assad and that Russia issue a clear call for him to step down.