International envoy Kofi Annan has proposed setting up a Syrian transitional government that could include followers of President Bashar al-Assad and opposition members in a bid to end the country's war, diplomats said overnight.
The major powers - the US, Britain, France, China and Russia, a key Assad ally - generally back the plan that will be discussed at a meeting of foreign ministers Annan has convened in Geneva on Saturday, they said.
Annan's blueprint says the interim government could include members of Assad's government and opposition groups, but not officials "whose presence could harm the transition and jeopardise the credibility of the government or undermine efforts to bring reconciliation," according to a summary given by one UN diplomat.
"The language of Annan's plan suggests that Assad could be excluded but also that certain opposition figures could be ruled out," said a second UN diplomat.
The diplomat stressed, however, that there was nothing in Annan's document which automatically excluded Assad, who has been battling a 15-month-old uprising that activists say has left more than 15,000 dead.
The plan is contained in a set of "Guidelines and Principles of a Syrian-led Transition" that Annan sent out to ministers who will be at Saturday's meeting, diplomats said.
The Geneva meeting will be attended by foreign ministers from the major powers - all permanent members of the UN Security Council - along with Turkey, Qatar, Kuwait and Iraq.
"Russia's acceptance of this plan could be a new sign that it is ready to let Assad go," said one diplomat. Another diplomat, however, expressed surprise that Russia would accept any plan under which Assad would be abandoned by its main ally.
Russia's UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin said there was no guarantee that Annan's document would be agreed to in Geneva.
"Whatever Kofi Annan is going to prepare is going to be basis of discussion for the ministers," Churkin said.
"That does not mean that Russia is going to try to renegotiate everything.
"Of course Kofi Annan has been consulting with us and others on the paper - it is not something that simply came to his mind - but I would not rule out that there will be additional discussions on the paper or maybe something in addition to the paper. It is going to be a working conference," Churkin said.
Speaking in the Finnish capital Helsinki on Wednesday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she had been in regular contact with Annan over his transition plan.
She did not make public details of his proposal, but noted: "I've been in close consultation with special envoy Kofi Annan about the prospects for a meeting that would focus on a roadmap for political transition in Syria."
Annan "has developed his own very concrete roadmap for political transition, he has been circulating it for comments and when I spoke to him yesterday I conveyed our support for the plan that he has put forward," said Clinton.
"We think it embodies the principles needed for any political transition in Syria that could lead to a peaceful, democratic and representative outcome reflecting the will of the Syrian people," she added.