Friday, May 25, 2018

Russia sends message of impatience to Syria's Assad

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Russia pressured President Bashar Assad of Syria on Monday to be more flexible about the future of his ravaged country, insisting that he talk with adversaries, inviting an anti-Assad delegation to the Kremlin and restricting shipments of new weapons to the Syrian armed forces.

The developments appeared to signal that Russia, the Syrian government's most important foreign backer, may be laying the basis for the option of eventually distancing itself from Assad.

The Syrian leader has sought to portray himself as a willing peace partner. He met Monday with the special representative from the United Nations and Arab League, Kofi Annan, whose peace plan was announced more than three months ago but has foundered. Annan said after the meeting that they had devised a new way to proceed but he did not offer an explanation. He then flew to Tehran for talks with Iranian leaders, Assad's last remaining regional allies.

While Russia has insisted throughout the nearly 17-month-old Syrian uprising that it will block any foreign military intervention there, it has shown increasing impatience with Assad. In recent weeks Russian officials have said they were not wedded to his tenure in power and that the Syrians must decide their own leaders.

President Vladimir Putin appeared to sharpen the tone of the Russian message in remarks Monday at the Foreign Ministry in Moscow. "We must do as much as possible to force the conflicting sides to reach a peaceful political solution to all contentious questions," he said.

Putin spoke as a delegation of opposition figures representing the Syrian National Council, the main anti-Assad umbrella group, traveled to Moscow at the invitation of the Foreign Ministry.

Russia's ambivalent position on Assad appeared to be reflected Monday in statements by Russian military industry officials, who suggested an intention to limit the weaponry they would furnish to Syria.

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