Russia Targets Diplomatic Solution on Syria in Moscow Talks

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Photographer: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

Russia hosted a top Syrian official today in support of United Nations efforts to seek a negotiated outcome to the 21-month conflict in the Middle Eastern nation.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mikdad, two days before a visit to Moscow by UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. The UN mediator, who has been holding negotiations in Syria this week with President Bashar Al-Assad and opposition representatives, said he has discussed the formation of a transitional government with expanded powers, according to Al Arabiya television.

The meetings in Moscow are “part of our efforts to promote dialogue, not only with the government but with all opposition groups,” Alexander Lukashevich, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, told reporters in the Russian capital today. “The internal conflict in Syria doesn’t have a military solution.”

Russia hasn’t ceased its arms exports to Syria during the conflict and has blocked UN sanctions against Assad’s government. It also rejects opposition demands for the Syrian leader’s resignation before any transition talks. The uprising that started in March 2011 has killed more than 44,000 people, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Lavrov and Mikdad discussed possible steps to end the violence and begin talks, according to a statement on the Foreign Ministry website released after the meeting.

Damascus Bombing

Fierce fighting continued throughout Syria today as government and opposition forces clashed in Damascus, Aleppo, Hama, Homs and other cities, the Observatory said. A car bomb in the capital killed about 35 people, according to Al Jazeera. About 160 people were killed yesterday.

Russia “sees no alternative” to a plan on Syria signed by major powers in Geneva in June and which called for a power-sharing government, according to Lukashevich. Assad’s resignation isn’t a “precondition” for peace talks, he said.

“The Russians saying that there’s no solution without Assad is another way of saying that this conflict won’t be resolved without them,” Ghanem Nuseibeh, London-based founder of political-risk analyst Cornerstone Global Associates. “They know they can negotiate a safe passage for Assad, and they want to play a central role in post-Assad Syria.”

Not Ready

Still, the Russians aren’t ready to abandon him publicly, Nuseibeh said by telephone. Russia has a naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus and billions of dollars of arms contracts with the Middle Eastern state. After the overthrow of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 2003 and Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi last year, Syria is the last major customer for Russian weapons in the region.

Syria’s ruling Baath party has called for a Yemen-style power shift that would cost Assad his presidency, Al Arabiya reported today, without citing anyone or providing details. Under a Saudi-brokered deal, former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh received full immunity from prosecution to transfer power to his deputy in 2011 after months of mass protests and violence.

Assad refuses to step down and won’t be offered asylum in Moscow to persuade him, Lavrov said on Dec. 21. Russia 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, according to Lavrov. Russia has repeatedly accused Qatar and Saudi Arabia of unleashing chaos by arming the Syrian opposition.

“If the aim is to claim Assad’s scalp, the responsibility for the continuation of the bloodshed will lie on those who pursue this course,” Lukashevich said. “Decisive steps are needed to end the bloodshed.”

The Syrian president inherited power in 2000 from his father, Hafez al-Assad, a Soviet ally who ruled for three decades and received weapons and financial support for the Arab standoff against Israel.

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