Russia Urges Assad to Be ‘Constructive,’ Rejects His Ouster

  • Deputy foreign minister says Russia backs democracy in Syria
  • U.S. says Russia should push Assad to stop cease-fire breaches

Russia urged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to be “constructive” in talks aimed at paving the way for democratic elections in the war-ravaged country, even as it defended its ally from opposition demands for his ouster.

Both Assad and his opponents must demonstrate a “real willingness” to agree on a new constitution for Syria that would build a “future democratic society,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said in an interview Friday at the Foreign Ministry in Moscow.

Gatilov, Russia’s point man for United Nations-sponsored talks in Geneva, said that the main opposition group, the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee, has a rightful place at the negotiating table. But he signaled that Russia supports a role for other groups seen as more acceptable to Assad, warning the HNC that it can’t claim to be “the only opposition representative.”

A new round of talks between Syria’s government and opposition is scheduled for Monday in Geneva as a partial cease-fire extends into a third week. Russia and the U.S., which engineered the cessation of hostilities to breathe life into the stalled peace process, are trying to strengthen the diplomatic track to resolve the crisis. The five-year war has killed a quarter-million people and destabilized Europe with a mass exodus of refugees. It also has allowed Islamic State to establish a bastion from which to expand its regional influence and plot terrorist attacks.

Declining Violence

While saying that the cease-fire “has led to an overall reduction in violence” and the delivery of humanitarian aid, U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters Friday in Washington that Russia should press Assad’s regime to stop its “chronic and recurring actions to undermine those efforts.”

Kirby said the regime has been “removing badly needed medical supplies” from deliveries of humanitarian aid, and he cited reports that it “conducted airstrikes which struck civilian protesters in Aleppo and Daraa,” including a mosque as the congregation was leaving.

Gatilov rejected opposition accusations that Russian and Assad forces are violating the cease-fire on a daily basis, saying that they are targeting only Islamic State and the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, which are excluded from the truce.

Political Transition

The UN says it will push for a quick deal on a political transition in Syria. A road map approved by world powers in November aims for an agreement on “inclusive and non-sectarian governance” within half a year, followed by elections under a new constitution inside a further 12 months.

So far, the opposition and Assad are giving few signs that they are willing to make the major compromises needed to turn the patchy cease-fire into a lasting peace. Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which support rebel groups, have pushed for Assad to stand down once the transitional government takes office. Russia asserts that he has a right to take part in future elections, arguing that the Syrian people must decide his fate.

The new constitution must include “guarantees that ensure an equal participation in the electoral process for all Syrians,” Gatilov said. International monitoring will also be key to free and fair polls, he said.

The Syrian president has won plebiscites unopposed twice with almost 100 percent of the vote. In 2014, in the midst of civil war, he secured another seven-year term with 89 percent in a ballot condemned as illegitimate by Western and most Arab powers.

Truce Accusations

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his military to start a bombing campaign in September in support of Assad, averting the Syrian leader’s overthrow and allowing his regime to reverse the tide of the war.

Gatilov called upon two Islamist rebel groups, Ahrar as-Sham and Army of Islam, to sever all ties with Nusra and withdraw from areas of Syria controlled by the al-Qaeda affiliate.

He also criticized Turkey for its shelling of Kurdish positions in Syria and for allegedly allowing arms shipments across the border under the guise of aid supplies. All these actions must stop “to provide a more constructive atmosphere for the intra-Syrian talks and a more durable cease-fire,” he said.

Both Turkey and Saudi Arabia have warned that they could deploy soldiers to Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has expressed alarm over territorial gains made by Kurdish militias in Syria that he fears could embolden the push for autonomy by Kurds within his own country.

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