Russia Says No Chance of Convincing Assad to Quit

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad told a top United Nations envoy this week that he won’t quit before his term ends in 2014, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

“It’s impossible to change his position,” Lavrov said at a joint press conference after talks in Moscow today with UN and Arab League special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, who met Assad in Damascus on Dec. 24.

Russia, Syria’s main international backer, yesterday called on Assad to make efforts toward a political settlement by holding dialog with the opposition on all possible options. The U.S. and Russia, which have clashed over efforts by President Barack Obama’s administration to oust Assad, are working together in a bid to negotiate a peaceful outcome to the uprising that started in March 2011.

“When the opposition says that only Assad’s departure would allow for the start of talks on the fate of the country -- we think that’s incorrect,” Lavrov said. Maintaining that position is fueling the death toll, he said.

The 21 months of violence, which has pitted the mainly Sunni Muslim opposition against the Alawite-dominated security forces, has killed more than 44,000 people, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The conflict is becoming increasingly sectarian, Lavrov and Brahimi said today.

Russia has accused Saudi Arabia and Qatar of fueling the conflict by arming the Syrian opposition.

Brahimi, who met Assad and opposition representatives in the Syrian capital this week, is proposing an interim government with full executive powers to prepare for elections in Syria.

Only Alternative

“It is indispensable that this conflict is ended in 2013 and hopefully at the beginning of 2013,” the UN diplomat said today. “If the only alternative is really hell or a political process, then we have got all of us to work ceaselessly for a political process. It is difficult, it is very complicated but there is no other choice.”

Russia yesterday said it has invited Mouaz al-Khatib, head of the united Syrian opposition grouping, for talks to discuss a solution to the fighting in Syria. Al-Khatib, head of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, said yesterday that while he won’t travel to Moscow, he is open to talks, Al Jazeera television reported.

He also demanded from Russia a “clear condemnation of the crimes committed by the Syrian regime,” according to Al Jazeera.

‘Neutral Venue’

Russia is prepared to meet the opposition in a “neutral venue,” Lavrov said today, adding that it was in the Syrian opposition’s interests to hear the Russian position. The talks could be in Moscow, Geneva or Cairo, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said yesterday, state news service RIA Novosti reported.

“If they feel Russia has a useful role to play in this drama, they should be ready to meet Russian representatives without any preconditions,” Lavrov said.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s spokesman, Martin Nesirky, denied media reports yesterday that Brahimi had said that Assad could stay in power until 2014 under the peace plan.

The U.S. and Russia will hold a joint meeting next month with Brahimi to discuss the efforts to reach an agreement on Syria, Bogdanov said, according to RIA Novosti.

Russia, which has blocked UN sanctions against Syria during the conflict, 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.

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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