Russia’s Not Bound to Assad, Syria Opposition Head Says

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has assured the Syrian opposition that his country isn’t committed to President Bashar al-Assad, the leader of the main anti-government coalition said.

“When I met Lavrov last week in Paris, he confirmed that Russia isn’t holding on to Assad,” Ahmad al-Jarba, the head of the Syrian National Coalition, told reporters yesterday in Geneva.

Jarba said Russia, one of the Assad regime’s major allies, has no say in how Syrians should end their civil war. “The solution lies in negotiations between the Syrians in Geneva,” he said.

The Syrian opposition is scheduled to begin talks with representatives of the Assad government today, the first negotiations since a conflict that has killed more than 130,000 people erupted three years ago. The United Nations is mediating the discussions in Geneva, trying to bring the two sides face-to-face.

The talks are an effort to implement a 2012 plan -- known as the Geneva I communique -- to form a transitional governing body with full executive powers, which would include control over the military and security and intelligence services.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova couldn’t immediately be reached for comment on Jarba’s statement.

‘Blood on Hands’

Lavrov’s comments, as related by Jarba, aren’t inconsistent with what he has told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, according to a State Department official who asked not to be identified discussing diplomatic communications.

The opposition maintains that Assad can have no role in a transitional government, a position supported by the U.S. and its European and Arab allies, including Saudi Arabia.

Kerry said yesterday that members of the Assad government “who don’t have blood on their hands” can be part of the political transition.

“But in the end, because the Geneva I communique requires a transition government by mutual consent, there is no way that the opposition is ever going to consent to Assad being part of that future,” Kerry said in an interview with Al Arabiya TV.

Russia has disputed that view, contending that a political transition in Syria doesn’t mean “regime change,” and that negotiations are necessary to reach any agreement on Assad’s future.

‘No Reason’

Assad said his chances of running in Syria’s June presidential elections are “significant,” and he sees “no reason why” he shouldn’t, according to a Jan. 20 interview with Agence France-Presse news agency.

“I must be at the forefront of those defending this country, and this has been the case from day one,” he said.

Jarba said he couldn’t predict how long the negotiations would last, saying that a detailed timetable would be discussed today.

“Negotiations will definitely be difficult,” he said. “The road of a thousand miles starts with a step.”

Syria’s civil war, which has forced millions to flee their homes, has spread across borders, fueling sectarian violence and political instability from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf.

It has seeped into neighboring Iraq and Lebanon, where a car bomb killed five people on Jan. 21 in the stronghold of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, a Syria ally fighting alongside Assad’s troops. The violence was the latest in a string of attacks against the group for its role in the crisis.

Sunni extremist groups, some of them affiliated with al-Qaeda and the uprising in neighboring Iraq’s Anbar province, have assumed a larger military role in the opposition, prompting Assad and his allies to portray the uprising as a war against terrorism.

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