Russia urges Damascus to talk with Syrian opposition

Russia, Syria's biggest international supporter, is leaning on President Bashar al-Assad to begin a dialogue with the Syrian opposition and take steps toward ending the conflict. 

Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (r.) shakes hands with his Egyptian counterpart Mohamed Kamel Amr during a news conference in Moscow December 28. Lavrov urged the Syrian government on Friday to act on its stated readiness for dialogue with opponents, amid a diplomatic push to end a 21-month-old conflict in Syria.

Russia urged the Syrian government today to act on its stated readiness for dialogue with its opponents, throwing its weight behind a diplomatic push to end a 21-month-old conflict in Syria.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he had urged Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Makdad to emphasize his government's openness to dialogue with the opposition during talks in Moscow yesterday.

"We actively encouraged... the Syrian leadership to make as concrete as possible its declared readiness for dialogue with the opposition," Lavrov told reporters after talks with his Egyptian counterpart Mohamed Kamel Amr in Moscow.

He said the Syrian government should stress its readiness for talks on the widest possible range of matters, in line with an international agreement in Geneva last June calling for a transitional government.

"I think a realistic and detailed assessment of the situation inside Syria will prompt reasonable opposition members to seek ways to start a political dialogue," added Lavrov, who last week said that neither side would win by force.

Russia expects to meet a senior US diplomat on Syria next month to discuss with international Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi his plans to end the civil war there, the Kremlin's envoy to the region said earlier today.

Brahimi will visit Moscow tomorrow for talks on the results of his negotiations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his opponents during a five-day trip to Damascus in which he called for political change to end the bloodshed.

"We will listen to what Lakhdar Brahimi has to say about the situation in Syria and after that, probably, there will be a decision to hold a new meeting of the 'three Bs'," Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told the RIA news agency – in a word play on the first letter of the diplomats' last names.

Russian influence

Bogdanov, US Undersecretary of State William Burns and Brahimi, the joint special representative of the United Nations and the Arab League, agreed that a political solution to the crisis was necessary and possible in talks earlier this month.

Bogdanov, the Kremlin's special envoy for Middle East Affairs, said the three would meet again in January after the holiday period.

Russia has also invited the head of the internationally-recognized opposition Syrian National Council, Moaz al-Khatib, to talks, he said, in comments that appeared underline Moscow's commitment to helping Brahimi seek a way out of the crisis.

Russia has been critical of the Western backing for the Syrian National Council trying to oust Assad.

Brahimi, who has called for a transitional government to rule until elections, is trying to broker a peaceful transfer of power in Syria, where more than 44,000 people have been killed in a revolt against four decades of Assad family rule.

What role Assad and members of his government might play in a transitional body – a plan outlined in Geneva six months ago – has divided world powers.

Past peace efforts have floundered as what began as peaceful protests in March 2011 turned into civil war. The conflict has become an increasingly sectarian struggle between mostly Sunni Muslim rebels and Assad's security forces, drawn primarily from his Shi'ite-rooted Alawite minority.

World powers believe Russia, which has given Assad military and diplomatic aid during the uprising, has the ear of Syria's government and must be a central player in any peace talks.

Moscow has tried to distance itself from Assad in recent months and has denied it is not propping him up. But it maintains Assad's exit cannot be a precondition for talks and has repeatedly said Western powers should not impose solutions on Syria.

Lavrov warned yesterday that time was running out to find a peaceful solution to the conflict and halt a descent into "bloody chaos."

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