Sunday, December 30, 2012

United Nations Envoy to Syria Holds Discussions With Russian Foreign Minister in Moscow

December 29, 2012

Insisting on Assad’s Exit Will Cost More Lives, Russian Says

New York Times

MOSCOW — Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said Saturday that there was “no possibility” of persuading President Bashar al-Assad to leave Syria, leaving little hope for a breakthrough in the standoff. He also said that the opposition leaders’ insistence on Mr. 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 Mr. 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 thorny question of what role, if any, Mr. Assad would occupy in it.

But after talks in Moscow on Saturday with Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations and Arab League envoy on Syria, Mr. Lavrov said that Russia could not press Mr. Assad to give up power. Mr. Lavrov has said that Russia “isn’t in the business of regime change,” but his characterization of Mr. 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,” Mr. Lavrov said. “There is no possibility of changing this position.”

There have been evident changes in the standoff over Syria in recent weeks, as Russia acknowledged that government forces were losing territory and distanced itself from Mr. Assad. In televised remarks, President Vladimir V. Putin said that 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.”

But Moscow has watched the recent Arab uprisings with mounting worry, arguing that the West was unleashing dangerous turbulence by supporting popular rebellions, and it has vehemently opposed any international intervention in Syria as a matter of principle.

Developments on the battlefield have accelerated the pace of diplomacy.

Anti-Assad activists on Saturday reported fierce fighting and large numbers of casualties in the central city of Homs, where they said government troops were completely surrounding the Deir Ba’alba neighborhood after storming the area on Friday. An activist reached by telephone, who said he was less than a mile from the neighborhood on Saturday night, said he heard gunfire and saw houses in flames. Communications to the area had been cut, and civilians and rebel fighters who had managed to flee were “traumatized,” he said.

Mr. Brahimi, an Algerian statesman who is viewed sympathetically in Moscow, recommended last week that a transitional government be established, perhaps within months, and that it should rule Syria until elections could be held.

Like Russia, Mr. Brahimi hopes to arrange a political settlement on the basis of an international agreement reached this summer in Geneva, which envisages a transitional government and a peacekeeping force. But the Geneva document does not address Mr. Assad’s fate, nor does it invoke tough sanctions against the Syrian government under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, which authorizes economic measures and, if necessary, military action.

On Saturday, Mr. Brahimi said that 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,” Mr. Brahimi said.

Russia has set the stage for forward momentum, announcing a gathering in mid-January between the United States, Russia and Mr. Brahimi to discuss Syria.

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. Mr. Lavrov bridled on 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, Mr. 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.

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.

Mr. Lavrov said Saturday that he would agree to such a meeting, but he responded to Mr. 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.”

Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon.

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