CAIRO: Saudi Arabia opted to stay away from a meeting of four regional powers on the Syrian crisis on Monday, adding to a sense that the forum is unlikely to advance the quest for peace.
The "contact group" of Egypt, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia was assembled at Egypt's initiative. But Egyptian presidential spokesman Yasser Ali and an Arab League official both said the Saudi foreign minister was staying away for health reasons, without saying why no one else was coming in his place.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu also said Saudi Arabia, which attended a preparatory meeting last week, would be absent on Monday, but that it would join in future meetings. There was no immediate Saudi comment.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal underwent surgery last month, keeping him away from official business, but he has been represented at international meetings by Deputy Foreign Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah.
Diplomats and Western officials have been sceptical that the group can reach any tangible deal, particularly when it includes both Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Iran, who have tussled for influence in sectarian conflicts across the Middle East.
Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have all demanded that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down, while Iran is his main ally and accuses states including Saudi Arabia and Turkey of helping the rebels who are fighting to topple him.
Against that backdrop, some analysts said Egypt may itself not have expected much from the group and that Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi's main aim may have been to put Cairo back on the map as a regional power broker.
One ambassador to the Arab League said it was "not possible for regional states to succeed in solving this (Syrian) file in light of the differences between Russia and China on one side and America and the West on the other".
China and Russia have vetoed Western- and Arab-backed U.N. Security Council resolutions intended to raise pressure on Assad to halt the violence and engage in talks on a peaceful solution.
The U.N.-Arab League mediator on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, also visited Cairo on Monday after making his first trip to Damascus in his new post. Brahimi met privately with Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby in Elaraby's home in Cairo.
During the meeting Brahimi told Reuters that his visit to Damascus made him "form an inclusive image about the situation in Syria that confirmed that the situation is extremely dangerous and escalating".
Brahimi said he would next go to New York where he would report to the U.N. Security Council and some Arab ministers, who will be there to attend the U.N. General Assembly meeting that starts on Tuesday. He said he would then return to Syria, without specifying precisely when.
Davutoglu said Brahimi should have a different mandate from Kofi Annan, the former U.N. secretary-general who quit as Syria envoy complaining about the impasse at the Security Council.
"He must not allow Assad to buy more time with this type of mission," Davutoglu said. "Assad misused Kofi Annan's mission to increase pressure on people. Brahimi shouldn't give Assad this chance."
A diplomatic source told the daily Al-Ahram that Egypt would seek agreement at Monday's meeting on a call for an immediate halt to Syria's violence, a rejection of any foreign military intervention, and an endorsement of Syrian unity.
The quartet meeting also aimed to help bring together Syria's myriad opposition groups and sects to achieve its people's "aspirations for democracy, freedom and dignity", according to Al-Ahram.