Assad will never leave Syria, Russian official says
Minister chides rebels over talks
MOSCOW — Russia’s foreign minister said Saturday there was ‘‘no possibility’’ of persuading President Bashar Assad to leave Syria, leaving little hope for a breakthrough in the standoff.
Sergei V. Lavrov also said that opposition leaders’ insistence on Assad’s departure as a precondition for peace talks would come at the cost of ‘‘more and more lives of Syrian citizens’’ in a conflict that has already killed tens of thousands.
Moscow has made a muscular push for a political solution in recent days, sending signals that the Kremlin, one of Assad’s most important allies, sees a pressing need for political change. As an international consensus forms around the notion of a transitional government, it has been snagged on the question of what role, if any, Assad would occupy in it.
But after talks in Moscow on Saturday with Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations and Arab League envoy on Syria, Lavrov said Russia could not press Assad to give up power. Lavrov has said Russia ‘‘isn’t in the business of regime change,’’ but his characterization of Assad’s stance on Saturday sounded more definitive.
‘‘He has repeatedly said, both publicly and privately, including during his meeting with Lakhdar Brahimi not long ago, that he has no plans to go anywhere, that he will stay in his post until the end, that he will, as he says, protect the Syrian people, Syrian sovereignty, and so forth,’’ Lavrov said. ‘‘There is no possibility of changing this position.’’
There have been evident changes in the long standoff over Syria in recent weeks, as Russia acknowledged that government forces were losing territory and as it distanced itself from Assad.
In a televised question-and-answer session, President Vladimir Putin said Russian leaders ‘‘are not preoccupied by the fate of Assad’s regime’’ and that after 40 years of rule by one family, ‘‘undoubtedly there is a call for change.’’
Like Russia, Brahimi hopes to arrange a political settlement on the basis of an international agreement reached last summer in Geneva, which envisages a transitional government and a peacekeeping force. But the Geneva document does not address Assad’s fate, nor does it invoke tough sanctions against the Syrian government under UN Chapter VII, which authorizes economic measures and, if necessary, military action.
On Saturday, Brahimi said it might be necessary to ‘‘make some small changes to the Geneva agreement.’’
‘‘Nonetheless,’’ he added, ‘‘I consider that it is a wonderful basis for the continuation of the political process.’’
He warned that if a political solution was not possible, Syria would be overrun by violence, like Somalia. He also said his recent visit to Damascus had convinced him that continued fighting in the country could turn into ‘‘something horrible,’’ and he envisioned the flight of a million people across Syria’s borders into Jordan and Lebanon.
“The problem could grow to such proportions that it could have a substantial effect on our future, and we cannot ignore this,’’ Brahimi said.
Russia has set the stage for forward momentum, announcing a trilateral gathering in mid-January among the United States, Russia, and Brahimi to discuss Syria. Russia’s top Middle East envoy, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, referred to this group with the nickname the ‘‘Three Bs,’’ because it includes himself and Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns, a former ambassador to Moscow.
Moscow may see these talks as a chance to rebuild its prestige in the Arab world, where Russia’s historically strong alliances have been badly damaged by the standoff over Syria. Lavrov bridled Saturday when a reporter from an Arabic news channel asked him to comment on criticism that Russia was ‘‘a participant in the Syrian conflict’’ because it continued to fulfill weapons contracts with Damascus after the outbreak of violence.
The accusation, Lavrov said, ‘‘is so far from the truth that there’s no way to comment on it.’’ He said that Russia did not supply the government with offensive weapons, and that much of Syria’s arsenal dated to the Soviet era. He also said the opposition was receiving a far more deadly flow of weapons and aid.
Unlike some other countries, Lavrov said, ‘‘we do not have the dozens and hundreds of representatives of the Russian special forces’’ in and around Syria. ‘‘It’s possible to speak about direct participation in the conflict, but it doesn’t apply to the Russian Federation.’’
The leader of the main opposition coalition, Sheik Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, responded coolly to an overture on Friday from Russia, saying Moscow should publicly apologize for its pro-government position. He also refused to meet with Russian leaders in Moscow, saying a meeting was possible only in an Arab country.
Lavrov said Saturday that he would agree to such a meeting, but responded to Khatib’s remarks with an equally chilly response.
‘‘I know that Mr. Khatib is probably not very experienced in politics,’’ he said. ‘‘If he aspires to the role of a serious politician, he will nonetheless understand that it is in his own interests to hear our analysis directly from us.’’