Syrian President Bashar al-Assad refuses to step down and won’t be offered asylum in Moscow to help persuade him, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
“Assad has no intention of quitting,” Lavrov told reporters last night on his plane back to Moscow after taking part in a meeting between Russia and the European Union in Brussels. “He refuses these proposals, whatever we might like. Irrespective of who tells him, Russia, China or someone else.”
Russia, which has maintained weapons supplies to its Soviet-era ally and blocked the demands for action through the United Nations Security Council during the 21-month Syrian conflict, is not planning to grant Assad a place of exile, Lavrov said. “Russia is not inviting Assad to come here, we have no such plans.”
Assad, whose forces have suffered recent setbacks at the hands of the opposition, which controls mainly Sunni Muslim areas stretching from the northeastern outskirts of the capital to the southwest, last month vowed that he wouldn’t flee.
Syria is “the last stronghold of secularism and stability in the region,” Assad said in an interview with Russian state broadcaster RT in Damascus. “I have to live and die in Syria.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday urged talks between the two sides in the conflict, which has killed more than 44,000 people since March 2011, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. At least 148 people died in fighting yesterday, including 48 in Damascus and its suburbs, the opposition Local Coordination Committees said in an e-mail.
A car bomb exploded in in the eastern Damascus district of Qaboun, killing five people and injuring dozens, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in an e-mailed statement. Rebel forces battled with government forces in Hajar al-Aswad in southern Damascus, the group said.
The army clashed with rebels around the city of Hama in central Syria and in Daraya outside of Damascus, the Syrian Arab News Agency reported, citing an unidentified government official. The army also repelled an assault on a military battalion in Shabaa outside of the capital, the news service said.
Russia wants to avoid “chaos” in Syria after any changes that may take place in the country, Putin said in Brussels, distancing himself from Assad.
“We aren’t advocates for the current leadership,” Putin said. “We will work to ensure order in Syria and a democratic system based on the popular will of the Syrian people.”
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said last week that Assad is losing control and may be overthrown, Russia’s first official acknowledgment that the Syrian leader’s days may be numbered.
At the same time, Lavrov said Russia had spurned requests from regional powers in the Middle East to facilitate the ouster of Assad and refuses to take part in regime change in the country. Russia has repeatedly accused Qatar and Saudi Arabia of unleashing chaos by arming Assad’s opponents.
Russia doesn’t believe that the overthrow of the Syrian leader would end the fighting, Lavrov said. “There are forecasts made by Western intelligence services that the ouster of the regime won’t lead to the end of this drama, but that a renewed battle will be triggered,” he said.
In a bid to revive mediation efforts, Russia has invited Lakhdar Brahimi, the joint special representative of the UN and the League of Arab States, to Moscow next week, according to Lavrov. Russia has also asked Mouaz al-Khatib, head of the united Syrian opposition grouping, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, to hold talks with Russian representatives to discuss a peaceful solution, he said.
Negotiations are the only way to halt the increasingly violent civil war in the country, the United Nations Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria said this week.
Violence has “increased dramatically” in and around major cities, particularly Damascus, the capital, and Aleppo, the commercial hub, the commission said in its latest periodic update. It found numerous incidents of torture, summary executions and attacks on cultural property.
Sectarianism has grown and tension between the Shiite and Sunni Muslim communities in some areas is escalating, according to the report. The sectarian lines fall most sharply between Syria’s Alawite community, from which most of the government’s senior political and military figures hail, and its majority Sunni community, which broadly supports the anti-government armed groups.