Russia Urges Syrian Leader to Negotiate with His Opponents

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MOSCOW -- Russia, Syria's longtime ally, urged the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, on Friday to negotiate with his opponents as further signs emerged that Moscow and other international parties to the conflict were coalescing around the idea of a transitional government as a key to solving the nearly two-year-old Syrian crisis.

During a news conference with his Egyptian counterpart in Moscow, the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said he had urged a visiting Syrian government delegation "to maximally put into action its declared readiness for dialogue with the opposition." Mr. Lavrov also said Moscow had requested a meeting with Sheik Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, the head of the largest exile Syrian opposition coalition.

Sheik Khatib, a former imam of the historic Umayyad mosque in Damascus, said in an interview with Al Jazeera that he was open to the idea of such a meeting but would refuse to travel to Moscow for it. He also said Russia must issue a "clear condemnation of the crimes committed by the Syrian regime."

Though the United States, Britain and several Persian Gulf nations have recognized the opposition coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people, Moscow has so far refused. In recent weeks, though, Russia has shown signs that it is distancing itself from Mr. Assad, though it maintains that his fate is a matter for Syrians to decide.

Speaking at the same news conference, the Egyptian foreign minister, Mohamed Kamel Amr, tried to highlight the common ground between the Egyptian and Russian governments, saying they both rejected any foreign intervention in the conflict and favored a political transition. He also said Mr. Assad had to leave Syria, revealing the wide gap in positions between Russia and other nations trying to mediate the crisis, a gap that may yet derail the talks.

In the Syrian capital, Damascus, on Thursday, Lakhdar Brahimi, the international envoy on Syria, said a transitional government with full executive authority should be established, perhaps within months, and should rule the country until elections could be held.

Mr. Brahimi did not say who would serve in such a government, and he offered no details about the role that Mr. Assad would play -- if any -- during a transitional period. But his comments suggested that if Mr. Assad remained in the country, he would retain none of his authority.

"All the powers of government should be with this government," Mr. Brahimi said of the proposed transitional authority.

His comments were his most detailed since he traveled on Sunday to Syria, where he met with Mr. Assad and Syrian opposition members in an effort to revive hopes of a political solution to the crisis. But even as Mr. Brahimi and other international diplomats warned Thursday of the high cost Syrians would pay if his efforts failed, there was no immediate sign of a new diplomatic formula that would be acceptable to the government and its opponents.

"The situation is bad and worsening," Mr. Brahimi said. "The Syrian people are suffering unbearably. We do not speak in a vacuum about theoretical things."

Over the past month, Mr. Brahimi, as the special Syria representative from the United Nations and the Arab League, has consulted extensively with the United States and Russia in hopes of fulfilling an accord reached in Geneva this summer calling for dialogue between Syria's government and the opposition.

Russia, a leading ally of the Assad government, has long pointed to the Geneva agreement, which calls for the creation of a transitional government and for talks between the antagonists, as the only acceptable basis for resolving the conflict. However, the agreement does not address Mr. Assad's fate, which is a crucial problem because many in the opposition say he must step down as a precondition for talks.

In Damascus on Thursday, Mr. Brahimi also denied that he had proposed a specific plan, as many opposition members had asserted in recent days. And he said the United States and Russia had not reached any agreement that he was pressing Mr. Assad to accept. "I wish there was a U.S.-Russia proposal for me to sell," he said. "I did not come here to sell."

The envoy said the Geneva framework "includes elements that are sufficient for a plan to end the crisis in the next few coming months," mentioning a peacekeeping force to monitor a cease-fire and the establishment of a transitional government. He said that the transition "should not be allowed to lead to the collapse of the state and its institutions."

Mr. Brahimi's comments were met with pessimism by members of the largest opposition coalition, who have long said that any arrangement that left Mr. Assad in the country was unacceptable. They have also called for the dismantling of state institutions tied to repression by the government, especially the security and intelligence services. As insurgent groups make gains against the Syrian military, the political opposition has shown even less willingness to compromise.

"His initiative is very late, and it is very much detached from what's actually happening on the ground and on the battlefield," said Ahmad Ramadan, a coalition member who is in Turkey. "We will not discuss any transitional government before Bashar al-Assad steps down."

In Washington, a State Department spokesman, Patrick Ventrell, on Thursday praised efforts to produce a peaceful transition but ruled out any role for Mr. Assad in the process.

Frederic C. Hof, who served as a special adviser on Syria to the State Department, said in an e-mail that Mr. Brahimi's efforts amounted to "a long shot."

"Assad is not yet persuaded that he needs to yield power and get out," Mr. Hof said. "There is no solution that involves him sticking around, even as a figurehead."

Ellen Barry reported from Moscow, and Kareem Fahim from Beirut, Lebanon.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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