GENEVA, Switzerland - Syria's warring sides are due to end another round of peace talks in Geneva Friday, with hopes of progress dim as the foes remain mired in blame-trading over the violence ravaging their country.
The gridlock, which has seen the rivals fail to even agree on an agenda for the talks, has prompted Washington and Moscow to use their clout with their respective allies to help revive the process.
A Western diplomat said prospects were "grim" as the second round of talks drew to a close, and UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi admitted that "failure is always staring at us in the face".
"Until now, we are not making much progress," Brahimi said Thursday after meeting high-level diplomats from Russia and the United States.
Washington, which backs the opposition, and Moscow, a key ally of the Syrian regime, "promised that they will help both here and in their capitals and elsewhere to unblock the situation for us," said Brahimi.
The so-called Geneva II negotiations, which began on January 22, have so far done nothing to end the nearly three-year civil war that has claimed more than 136,000 lives and forced millions from their homes.
'A very bad omen'
Syria's foes did not meet Thursday, and were expected to hold only separate meetings with Brahimi on Friday.
"We expected that the talks would be difficult. We didn't expect that (the parties) would be unable to compromise on an agenda, and that frankly is not good. That's a very bad omen for the process," said the diplomat, who asked not to be identified.
The talks, which started Monday, have achieved little more than an endless restating of positions and trading of accusations.
The opposition National Coalition maintains that the only way forward is to create a transitional government that can guide Syria towards peace, without President Bashar al-Assad.
The regime, however, says Assad's future is not up for discussion, and insists the top priority of the talks must be halting the violence and "terrorism", which it blames squarely on its opponents and their foreign backers.
Brahimi has attempted to find a middle ground, suggesting that the parties discuss the two issues in parallel.
But the regime delegation has so far refused, insisting it would be catastrophic to touch on politics before completely resolving the "terrorism" issue.
"There is no hint of flexibility on the Syrian government position," the diplomat said, warning that without "an agreement on an agenda, I don't know how Brahimi will uphold a round three."
Brahimi himself has said he has "tonnes of patience" and that he would "certainly not leave one stone unturned if there is a possibility to move forward".
But the diplomat cautioned: "I would not assume he will stay indefinitely," pointing out that the Algerian peacemaker might have "concerns about his own credibility" if he allows the process to continue turning like a broken record with no progress in sight.
If the parties are unable to announce Friday that they have agreed upon an agenda, "the prospects look much dimmer than they did a week ago... It is very grim," the diplomat said.
Opposition chief negotiator Hadi Bahra told AFP that Russia and the United States needed to "pressure the regime to be more serious".
Syria's deputy foreign minister, Faisal Muqdad, meanwhile told AFP "all the pressure should be put on the other side".
Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov met the regime delegation chief, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, on Wednesday, and the opposition delegation met US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman on Thursday evening.
It was unclear though if they could push the sides closer to actual dialogue.
Opposition delegation member Badr Jamous told AFP: "Things are not positive... I don't think there will be a third round."
Homs evacuation 'painstakingly slow'
Meanwhile, regime air attacks and fighting have sent the death toll in Syria soaring.
According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 236 people have been killed on average daily since the Geneva II process began on January 22, many of them as regime forces drop explosive-packed barrels on rebel areas.
UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos hailed the evacuation of civilians from the besieged Syrian city of Homs, but expressed frustration at the "extremely limited and painstakingly slow" progress.
"It was a success given the extremely difficult circumstances, but not a progress," she said. "We evacuated 1,400 people but there (are) nearly 250,000 more to go if you look at all the besieged communities."
Washington and London, meanwhile, demanded Damascus honour a pledge to release hundreds of men detained after being evacuated from Homs this week.
"The regime should know that the world is watching with deep concern what is taking place in Homs and the status of these male evacuees," said State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague called the detentions "outrageous".