Russia seeks to meet with Syria opposition

MOSCOW — Russia has shown a burst of diplomatic energy before talks here Saturday with the UN envoy on Syria, perhaps seeing a chance for a breakthrough that would temper the criticism it has drawn in the West and the Arab world during the course of the nearly two-year-old Syrian conflict.

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, on Friday made his first overtures toward the largest exile Syrian opposition coalition, saying that he had requested a meeting with its leader, Sheik Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib. The United States, Britain, and several Persian Gulf nations have recognized the coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people, but Moscow has so far refused.

Though Moscow opposes any international effort to force out Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, in recent days it has expressed increasing support for beginning a political process that would draw in both sides in the conflict. The United Nations and Arab League envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, recommended this week that a transitional government be established to rule the country until elections could be held.


“The feeling,’’ said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, ‘‘is that something is happening behind closed doors.’’ Russian leaders, he said, might see a chance to step in as statesmen after a long and isolating stand against international intervention.

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‘‘No one could understand why Russia was so firm and reluctant on Syria,’’ Lukyanov said. ‘‘Now it seems there is a chance to prove that this was right — to bring the situation close to a solution, and say that it is a big success of Russia.’’

Saturday’s talks will almost certainly focus on removing impediments to talks between the sides — no easy matter, since opposition leaders insist that Assad must leave power before they will negotiate.

Leaders of Syria’s main exile opposition coalition reacted coolly on Friday to Lavrov’s invitation. Khatib, the coalition leader, told Al Jazeera that the opposition would not travel to Moscow, but that a meeting could be held in an Arab country.

Khatib, a former imam of the historic Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, the Syrian capital, also asked for Lavrov to apologize for Russia’s support for the government during the conflict.


‘‘Why doesn’t Russia respond and issue a clear condemnation of the barbarity of the regime, and make a clear call for Assad to step down?’’ he said. ‘‘This is a basic condition for any negotiations.’’

Another coalition member, Walid al-Bunni, struck a more conciliatory note, saying, ‘‘We want Russia to be part of the solution.’’ He suggested that an apology was unnecessary if Moscow cut off its support for Assad, in particular its weapons shipments to the Syrian military.

“That’s when their initiatives will be taken seriously,’’ he said by telephone from Budapest.

Russia has said any solution should be based on an international agreement reached last summer in Geneva, which calls for a transitional government and peacekeeping force. But the Geneva document does not address the crucial question of Assad’s fate, which remains a sticking point even as Moscow and other international parties coalesce around the idea of a transitional government.

After talks with Lavrov on Friday morning, Egypt’s foreign minister, Mohamed Kamel Amr, highlighted common ground between the two countries, saying they both reject foreign intervention and favor a political transition. Amr went on to say that Assad had to leave Syria, revealing the wide gap in positions between Russia and other nations trying to mediate the crisis.


Analysts and political observers in Moscow said Lavrov and Brahimi may try to address Assad’s role in a hypothetical transition — how long he would remain in place, for instance, and in what capacity, and what security guarantees would allow him and his associates to leave safely. But Russia, having maintained a stand against international intervention for many months, is not likely to call for Assad’s departure now, Lukyanov said.