Russia says Assad can't be persuaded to leave Syria

Peace talks stalled with precondition of departure unmet

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MOSCOW -- Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Saturday that there was "no possibility" of persuading President Bashar Assad to leave Syria, leaving little hope for a breakthrough in the standoff.

He also said that 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 Russia could not press Mr. Assad to give up power.

Mr. Lavrov has said Russia "isn't in the business of regime change," but his characterization of Mr. Assad's stance 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 long 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 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."

Mr. Brahimi, an Algerian statesman who is viewed sympathetically in Moscow, recommended last week that a transitional government should 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 last 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 U.N. Chapter VII, 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."

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

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 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."

Anti-Assad activists reported intense fighting and a high number of casualties Saturday in the central city of Homs, where, they said, government troops had stormed and bombed the Deir Ba'alba neighborhood. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had received reports of deaths in Homs but could not confirm them because communications with the area had been cut off.

Another opposition group, the Local Coordination Committees, said as many as hundreds of people had been killed, but offered no supporting evidence.

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