* Annan's proposal to be discussed in Geneva on Saturday
* Unclear if Russia would accept exclusion of Assad (Adds background, diplomat)
By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS, June 27 (Reuters) - Russia and other big powers have told mediator Kofi Annan that they support his idea of a Syrian national unity cabinet that could include government and opposition members but would exclude those whose participation would undermine it, envoys said on Wednesday.
Annan's proposal for a political transition aimed at ending the 16-month conflict in Syria is one of the main topics that Russia, the other four permanent Security Council members and key players in the Middle East will discuss at a meeting in Geneva on Saturday, diplomats told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
One diplomat summarized Annan's proposal, saying the Syria conflict can only end when all sides see a peaceful way to a shared future." Annan made clear it was "vital that (any) settlement (be) irreversible, (with) clear transition steps in fixed timeline," he said.
"These include establishing a transitional national unity government to create a neutral backdrop for transition," the diplomat said in his summary of Annan's plan.
"It could comprise present government members, opposition and others, but would need to exclude those whose continued participation or presence would jeopardize the transition's credibility, or harm prospects for reconciliation and stability."
The diplomat added that the idea of excluding certain people was clearly referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, though Annan's proposal does not explicitly say Assad could not serve in a national unity government. That gives Russia the option of insisting that Assad be allowed to stay in power.
"The Russians signaled to Annan that they accept his transition plan," he said. Several Western diplomats confirmed his remarks, adding that all five permanent veto-wielding U.N. Security Council members backed it.
Another diplomat said Russia's acceptance of Annan's proposal, which he circulated to the five permanent Security Council members this week, did not mean it has abandoned Assad.
"I'm very skeptical," he said. "I don't see the Russians giving up on Assad."
The Russian mission at the United Nations was not available for comment.
SHIFT IN RUSSIA'S STANCE?
Annan made acceptance of his guidelines for a political transition for Syria a condition for organizing Saturday's meeting, which will include the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar. It will not include Iran or Saudi Arabia.
Russia has repeatedly said its supports Annan's idea of creating a "contact group" of powerful nations and regional players with influence on the Syrian government or the opposition to push for an end to the violence in Syria.
Several diplomats said Russia's acceptance of Annan's proposal appeared to signal a shift in its stance on Syria. But it was not immediately clear if Moscow's support for the idea of a national unity government in principle meant that it was now abandoning Assad, a staunch ally and key Russian arms purchaser.
The United States, Britain and France have said that Assad is responsible for the violence, which the United Nations estimates has killed at least 10,000 people, is no longer fit to govern. Russia and China, however, reject what they describe as Western calls for "regime change."
Russia has repeatedly said it is not insisting that Assad must remain in power at all costs, but that any decision on whether or not he should step down should come from the Syrian people, not from outside pressure or military intervention, as happened last year in Libya.
Saturday's meeting, which Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will attend, will have to agree on the details of the political transition and the mechanisms for implementing it, diplomats said.
Annan, a former U.N. secretary-general, also wants Saturday's meeting to revive his moribund six-point peace plan that has failed to end the fighting between Assad's forces and an increasingly militarized opposition. The conflict has escalated in recent weeks.
Annan said the aim of the one-day talks was to identify measures to secure full implementation of his stalled peace plan and Security Council resolutions, including an immediate halt to all violence. (Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington.; Editing by Sandra Maler and Christopher Wilson)
BEFORE YOU GO
07/13/2012 1:00 PM EDT
Car Bomb In Damascus
Syrian policemen inspect the site of a car bomb explosion on Mazzeh highway in the capital Damascus on July 13, 2012. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/GettyImages)
07/13/2012 12:00 PM EDT
Susan Rice Condemns Killings
U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice tweets:
@ AmbassadorRice :
#Syria regime turned artillery, tanks and helicopters on its own men & women. It unleashed knife-wielding shabiha gangs on its own children.
07/13/2012 11:58 AM EDT
Russia Condemns Massacre
Russia says international envoy Kofi Annan will visit Moscow on Monday to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria. Russia also called for an inquiry into an alleged massacre that took place in the village of Tramseh on Thursday. "We have no doubt that this wrongdoing serves the interests of those powers that are not seeking peace but persistently seek to sow the seeds of interconfessional and civilian conflict on Syrian soil," Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement, according to Reuters. Moscow did not apportion blame for the killings.
Read more on Reuters.com.
07/13/2012 11:55 AM EDT
Footage Of Massacre Aftermath (WARNING: VIDEO CONTAINS DISTURBING IMAGES)
The Associated Press obtained a video that purports to show the aftermath of an alleged massacre in the village of Tramseh, near Hama.
07/13/2012 9:34 AM EDT
How Do Syrian Fighters Get Their Arms?
How do Syria's fighters get their arms? An overview put together by Reuters explains that there are three gateways to the country -- Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq.
Syrian rebels are smuggling small arms into Syria through a network of land and sea routes involving cargo ships and trucks moving through Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, maritime intelligence and Free Syrian Army (FSA) officers say.
Western and regional powers deny any suggestion they are involved in gun running. Their interest in the sensitive border region lies rather in screening to ensure powerful weapons such as surface to air missiles do not find their way to Islamist or other militants.
Read the full report here.
07/13/2012 9:10 AM EDT
Activists Report New Massacre (WARNING: GRAPHIC PHOTOS)
This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a victim wounded by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northwest of the central city of Hama, Thursday, July 12, 2012. The accounts, some of which claim more than 200 people were killed in the violence Thursday, could not be independently confirmed, but would mark the latest in a string of brutal offensives by Syrian forces attempting to crush the rebellion. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)
This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a man mourning a victim killed by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northwest of the central city of Hama, Thursday, July 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)
07/12/2012 6:50 PM EDT
Hama Revolutionary Council: More Than 220 Killed
According to the Hama Revolutionary Council, a Syrian opposition group, more than 220 people have been killed in a new alleged massacre in Taramseh. Earlier reports said more than 100 people were killed. "More than 220 people fell today in Taramseh," the Council said in a statement. "They died from bombardment by tanks and helicopters, artillery shelling and summary executions."
Fadi Sameh, an opposition activist from Taramseh, told Reuters he had left the town before the reported massacre but was in touch with residents. "It appears that Alawite militiamen from surrounding villages descended on Taramseh after its rebel defenders pulled out, and started killing the people. Whole houses have been destroyed and burned from the shelling," Sameh claimed.
Read more on Reuters.com.
07/12/2012 6:17 PM EDT
Syrian State TV: 'Large Numbers Of Terrorists Killed'
Syrian activist Rami Jarrah tweets that Syrian State TV has confirmed deaths in Tremseh. "Terrorists" is often the term used by the Syrian regime for opposition forces.
@ AlexanderPageSY :
Syrian State TV: clashes between security apparatus & terrorists in #Tremseh of #Hama leaves large numbers of terrorists killed #Syria
07/12/2012 5:36 PM EDT
Update: Death Toll In New Massacre Reportedly More Than 200
@ Reuters :
UPDATE: DEATH TOLL IN SYRIAN FORCES' ATTACK ON VILLAGE IN SYRIA'S HAMA REGION IS MORE THAN 200, MOSTLY CIVILIANS - OPPOSITION ACTIVISTS