Assad won't go soon, Russia warns opposition

MOSCOW: The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, has said the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, will not quit before his term ends in 2014 and that it is ''impossible to change his position''.

The declaration came as Syrian armed forces recaptured a town in the west of the country after days of heavy fighting, Al Jazeera television reported. Government troops had taken control of Deir Balbah, near Homs, the station reported. An opposition coalition said the troops had executed some 220 residents, who were among at least 392 people killed across the country. The figures are unconfirmed.

On December 28 Russia, Syria's principal international backer, called on Mr Assad to make efforts towards a political settlement by holding talks, with the opposition, on all options.

''When the opposition says that only Assad's departure would allow for the start of talks on the fate of the country - we think that's incorrect,'' Mr Lavrov said. Maintaining that position was contributing to the rising death toll, he said.

In the 21 months of violence that has pitted the mainly Sunni Muslim opposition against the Alawite-dominated security forces loyal to Mr Assad, more than 44,000 people have been killed, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says.

On Sunday, Mr Lavrov and the United Nations' envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, said the conflict was becoming increasingly sectarian.

''If Russia has a proposal to stop the bleeding in Syria, it should submit it and we will respond,'' the head of the main bloc of Syrian opposition groups, Moaz al-Khatib, told Al Jazeera by telephone. ''We can't meet the Russians without a clear agenda.''

Russia has accused Saudi Arabia and Qatar of fuelling the conflict by arming the Syrian opposition. Syrian forces in Deir Balbah found tunnels that rebels were using to smuggle weapons, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported.

Mr Brahimi, who met Mr Assad and opposition representatives in Damascus in recent days, is proposing an interim government with full executive powers to prepare for elections in Syria.

Russia is prepared to meet the opposition in a ''neutral venue'', Mr Lavrov said on Saturday, adding that it was in the Syrian opposition's interests to hear the Russian position. The talks could be held in Moscow, Geneva or Cairo, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, said last Friday, Russia's international news agency RIA Novosti reported.

''If they feel Russia has a useful role to play in this drama, they should be ready to meet Russian representatives without any preconditions,'' Mr Lavrov said.

Sheikh Khatib said that while he would not travel to Moscow, he was open to talks, but he also demanded from Russia a ''clear condemnation of the crimes committed by the Syrian regime'', Al Jazeera reported. A spokesman for the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, denied media reports that Mr Brahimi had said Mr Assad could stay in power until 2014 under the peace plan.

Russia, which has blocked UN sanctions against Syria, has a naval base in the country and arms contracts worth billions of dollars with the state.

After the overthrow of Iraq's Saddam Hussein in 2003 and Libya's Muammar Gaddafi last year, Syria is the last big customer in the region for Russian weapons.


This story Assad won't go soon, Russia warns opposition first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.