Russia: Try again on Syria talks, Assad might be willing to go

Claiming that Assad would leave office if Syrians voted him out, the Kremlin is pushing for new diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict. But the US remains cool to Russia's overtures.

Manu Brabo/AP
An FSA soldier shoots his weapon towards Syrian Army positions in the Amariya district in Aleppo, Syria, Monday, Sept. 10. Russia says it's time for another diplomatic effort to find peace in Syria because the rebels aren't winning by military means and Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad has assured Moscow that he would leave office if Syrians voted him out.

Russia says it's time for another diplomatic effort to find peace in Syria – perhaps through an all-party conference in Moscow – because the rebels aren't winning by military means and Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad has assured Moscow that he would step aside if he were voted out.

"Bashar al-Assad has clearly stated that if the people did not want him, and if they elected another leader in a presidential election, he would go," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told the French newspaper Le Figaro Monday after holding meetings with Syrian opposition leaders in Paris.

"We have never said that keeping Assad in power was a prerequisite to any negotiations. But we also say that it is not the Russians or the French, to decide the fate of the Syrian president," Mr. Bogdanov added.

Bogdanov said it's time to revisit an agreement made in June by the big powers at a meeting in Geneva, which would create a transitional government involving both regime and opposition leaders, write a new constitution, and prepare for elections that would establish a new leadership for the country.

"There is a sense (in Moscow) that Russia is winning diplomatic terrain back," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal.

"Since early summer, after Kofi Annan resigned and everyone said diplomacy has run its course, Russia has maintained a low profile," he says. "But now Russia is reviving its efforts. It's become clear that the Syrian opposition cannot win. However weak Assad is, his regime is still strong and capable....  So, now, Russia is back and saying we might try again at looking for a peaceful settlement."

At last weekend's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to convince US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to revisit the Geneva plan, and she appeared to rebuff him.

"We have to be realistic. We haven't seen eye-to-eye [with the Russians] on Syria," Ms. Clinton told journalists at APEC. "That may continue. And if it does continue then we will work with like-minded states to support the Syrian opposition to hasten the day when Assad falls."

Moscow officially maintains that the Assad regime is too strong to overthrow, as evidenced by recent successes of the Syrian military, experts say. They also argue that, despite all the official talk of helping the rebels, there is no appetite in the West for Libya-style intervention in Syria, and that the Western public is increasingly aware of the participation of foreign jihadists and al-Qaeda linked forces among the Syrian opposition.

"Russia is right saying that interference of Western states is not neutral, and all facts about weapons delivered to one side show that their game is directed against Assad," says Pyotr Romanov, an expert with the state-run RIA-Novosti news agency. "Theoretically Moscow wants to do the right thing: to sit down at a round table for talks, to create a transitional government, to stop the bloodshed."

Deputy Foreign Minister Bogdanov told Le Figaro that Russia is ready to step up at any moment and organize a full conference to put diplomacy back on track, in Moscow or any other place. He added that time is running out, and that the alternative to a diplomatic settlement could be full-scale chaos.

"This conference will bring together representatives of the opposition and the regime, but also Christian, Alawite, Druze representatives. It will ensure non-violent crisis and allow the contours of Syria for tomorrow," he said.

But optimism does not run deep in Moscow and – like much of the public argument about Syria over the past year – it's mainly about shifting positions in the blame-game between East and West over the deteriorating situation in Syria, say analysts.

"Yes, Moscow understands that Assad's regime will be overthrown, this is just a question of time, but they do not know what to do about it," says Mr. Romanov.

"There is a situation in chess called 'Zugzwang' when every move, no matter what kind of a move it is, just makes things worse. Even if Assad leaves there will be such a knot of different interests and contradictions, the situation is so tangled that there is no single right solution. Nobody knows what to do."

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