Russia’s stance on Assad suggests divergence

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad speaks during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, October 20, 2015.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad speaks during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, October 20, 2015.


Russia does not see keeping Bashar al-Assad in power as a matter of principle, the Foreign Ministry in Moscow said on Tuesday in comments that suggested a divergence of opinion with Iran, the Syrian president’s other main international backer.

Fuelling speculation of Russian-Iranian differences over Assad, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps suggested on Monday that Tehran may be more committed to him than Russia, saying Moscow “may not care if Assad stays in power as we do.”

While Russia and Iran have been Assad’s foremost foreign supporters during Syria’s four-year-old war, the United States, its Gulf allies and Turkey have insisted the president must step down as part of any eventual peace deal.

Talks in Vienna on Friday among the main foreign players involved in diplomatic efforts on Syria failed to reach agreement on Assad.

Asked by a reporter on Tuesday if saving Assad was a matter of principle for Russia, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said: “Absolutely not, we never said that.”

“We are not saying that Assad should leave or stay,” RIA news agency quoted her as saying.

But another regime change in the Middle East could be a catastrophe that “could simply turn the whole region into a large black hole,” she added.

Zakharova said Russia had not changed its policy on Assad and that his fate should be decided by the Syrian people.

But her remarks appeared to suggest a difference of approach compared with Iran, which has sent forces to fight alongside Assad’s military and ordered in fighters from the Lebanese Hezbollah group, which it controls.

Russia “may not care if Assad stays in power as we do,” the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, was quoted as saying by the Tasnim news agency on Monday. But he added: “We don’t know any better person to replace him.”

Syria’s deputy foreign minister rejected the idea of a transitional period sought by Western states that want Assad removed from power, saying during a visit to Iran that an expanded government was being discussed.

“We are talking about a national dialogue in Syria and an expanded government and a constitutional process. We are not at all talking about what is called a transitional period,” Faisal Mekdad said.

Russia intervened militarily at the end of September to support Assad by launching bombing raids on rebel groups trying to overthrow him.

Diplomatic efforts

But Moscow has also shown increasing flexibility as it steps up diplomatic efforts to resolve a conflict that has killed 250,000 and displaced millions.

Syrian government officials and members of the country’s splintered opposition could meet in Moscow next week.

“Next week, we will invite opposition representatives to a consultation in Moscow,” Interfax news agency quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov as saying.

“The meeting … will possibly be with the participation of government representatives,” Bogdanov said. He did not say which opposition members might attend, but the invitation appeared to suggest a change in tone from Moscow, which has until now dismissed such groups.

Moscow’s goal was not to support Assad, but to save the Syrian state and defeat terrorist groups, a Russian analyst said. “It is the beginning of a political process,” said Irina Zvyagelskaya, a Middle East analyst at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura in Moscow on Wednesday to discuss attempts to start a dialogue between Damascus and the opposition, Moscow’s foreign ministry said.

At the talks in Vienna, where Russia was the leading player, Moscow said it wanted opposition groups to participate in future discussions on the Syria crisis and exchanged a list of 38 names with Saudi Arabia.

The list included mostly former and current members of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SNC), Syria’s Western-backed political opposition bloc, Kommersant newspaper reported on Tuesday.

Among those named were former SNC head Moaz al-Khatib and incumbent president Khaled Khoja, the daily reported, as well as representatives from a diverse range of political, religious and ethnic groups including the Muslim Brotherhood and a Christian pro-democracy movement.

Khoja said last week the Russian air strikes were intended to prop up Assad and had helped ISIS militants who have taken control of large areas of the country.

The SNC has been accused of slipping into virtual irrelevance on the battlefield as Islamist and Kurdish groups have grown stronger. But it remains one of the main parties in international discussions to end the war.

The coalition boycotted peace talks held in Russia in January and April, distrustful of the Kremlin and dismissing Damascus rivals who attended as token opposition, but it sent a delegation to Moscow in August.

Rebel advance

On the battlefield, a newly-formed U.S.-backed Syrian rebel alliance advanced against ISIS in the northeast province of Hasaka on Tuesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.

In the west, Russian warplanes carried out airstrikes in Hama province while unidentified jets bombarded the outskirts of the ISIS-held city of Raqqa in the north.

Syrian government forces and allied militia clashed in fierce battles with ISIS fighters southeast of Aleppo city, the Observatory said.


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