The U.N. mediator trying to convene Syria peace talks said on Monday it was urgent for Russia and the United States to reach an understanding to avert a military escalation that could effectively dismember the country.
The two powers are pivotal to ushering Syria's warring sides into talks, Staffan de Mistura said, though their differences seem so deep Moscow and Washington may not be able to establish a cohesive steering group of countries with peacemaking clout.
He said he would hold talks in Russia on Tuesday and then in Washington. De Mistura said intensifying fighting coinciding with Russia's military intervention in Syria made it more urgent to get Syrian government and opposition groups talking.
"What we must all avoid at all cost at this stage ... is a continuation of conflict... and a partition which de facto is already being seen as a possibility - and we consider that a tragedy," he told a news conference in Geneva.
"At the same time the situation could move into a toxic type of cocktail, a combination of a creeping Afghanistan with shades of Libya and Somalia. Hence the need for an urgent political process to start now."
Russia's entry into the civil war on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's side had "introduced new dynamics into the situation" and quickly displaced 40,000 civilians, Mistura said, and more could flee if they feared intensified fighting.
"I am going to Washington immediately after Moscow - after all it makes sense since the two countries have been discussing, and need to discuss the future steps," he said.
De Mistura said Assad's government had signalled its readiness to join four working groups that he planned to convene in Geneva to tackle aspects of post-conflict Syria. But the opposition Syrian Opposition Coalition has said it would not attend because of Russia's heavy air strikes on rebels.
The U.N. plan is for the talks to be supported by a contact group of interested countries that de Mistura said would include the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and other regional players.
"If some countries don't want to talk to each other, one could imagine separate contact groups that then are facilitated to discuss through the help of the U.N.," he said.
He urged Damascus to end its barrel-bombing campaign against rebels and said its forces and the Russian military must respect a stalled, regional U.N.-brokered ceasefire deal that would allow evacuations of civilians and wounded from the town of Zabadani and villages of Kufreya and al-Foua.
(This story has been refiled to insert editing credit)
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles; Editing by Mark Heinrich)