Russia urges Assad to talk to opposition

December 29, 2012 - 3:35:40 am

MOSCOW/damascuss: the only world power with close ties to the Syrian regime, urged President Bashar Al Assad yesterday to talk to the opposition as Moscow itself put out feelers to the rebels.

The new pressure on Assad came as Moscow revved up its bid to save a tattered peace process by first hosting a top Damascus envoy and then planning for a meeting today with Syria peace mediator Lakhdar Brahimi.

Russia also invited the head of the opposition National Coalition for talks in either Moscow or a regional capital - the Kremlin’s first contact with a group formed in November and recognised by the West as the legitimate representative of all Syrians.

But the opposition leader has rejected an invitation for peace talks, dealing another blow to international hopes that diplomacy can be resurrected to end a 21-month civil war.  Ahmed Moaz Al Khatib told Al Jazeera television that he would meet the Russians outside Moscow only under the condition that they issued “a clear condemnation of the crimes committed by the Syrian regime.”

But Moscow still views Assad as the legitimate leader, and its outreach to the regime’s opponents found a cool response from the National Coalition chief.

The fast-paced but tricky diplomacy came against the backdrop of air raids by Syrian warplanes on a Damascus province from which Assad’s forces had to withdraw the night before.

“The air force for the first time attacked the Assal Al Ward area in the Kalamun region, killing one civilian, wounding dozens and destroying several homes,” the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights watchdog said.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow still refused to back international calls on Assad to step down and expected the Syrian people to decide their own country’s fate.

But he made explicit that Russia wanted Assad to put all options on the table after 21 months of violence that has claimed more than 45,000 lives.

“We actively encouraged... the Syrian leadership to maximally put into action its declared readiness for dialogue with the opposition,” Lavrov told reporters.

He noted that Russia hoped to see Assad’s government “underscore that they are open to discussing the widest range of items in line with the agreements reached in Geneva on June 30.”

Two Syrian air force generals have defected from the regime of President Bashar Al Assad and joined opposition forces in Turkey, a diplomat said yesterday. The generals, commanders of the Regional Air Force, have crossed the border and arrived in the town of Reylanli in southern Turkey, the Turkish diplomat said on condition of anonymity.