Friday, December 15, 2017

Assad won't leave Syria, Russia's foreign minister says

MOSCOW — Russian 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.

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 thorny 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 that Russia could not press Assad to give up power. Lavrov has said that 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 distanced itself from Assad. In televised remarks, President Vladimir 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." Russia has set the stage for forward momentum, announcing a gathering in mid January among the United States, Russia and Brahimi to discuss Syria. Moscow may see these talks as a chance to rebuild its prestige in the Arab world.

Anti-Assad activists reported intense fighting and a high number of casualties on Saturday in the central city of Homs. 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.

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