Russia rejects Assad ouster precondition

January 13, 2013 - 3:26:14 am



Syrian soldiers loyal to President Bashar Al Assad are seen in Khan Al-Hariri district in Aleppo yesterday. 

MOSCOW/BEIRUT: Russia voiced support yesterday for international peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi but insisted Syrian President Bashar 

Al Assad’s exit cannot be a precondition for a deal to end the country’s conflict.

Some 60,000 Syrians have been killed during the 21-month-old revolt and world powers are divided over how to stop the escalating bloodshed. Government aircraft bombed outer districts of Damascus yesterday after being grounded for a week by stormy weather, opposition activists in the 

capital said.

A Russian Foreign Ministry statement following talks on Friday with the United States and Brahimi reiterated calls for an end to violence in Syria, but there was no sign of a breakthrough.

Brahimi said the issue of Assad, whom the United States, European powers and Gulf-led Arab states insist must step down to end the civil war, appeared to be a sticking point at the meeting in Geneva.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said: “As before, we firmly uphold the thesis that questions about Syria’s future must be decided by the Syrians themselves, without interference from outside or the imposition of prepared recipes for development.”

Russia has been Assad’s most powerful international backer, joining with China to block three Western-and Arab-backed UN Security Council resolutions aimed to pressure him or push him from power. Assad can also rely on regional powerhouse Iran.

In Geneva, Russia called for “a political transition process” based on an agreement by foreign powers last June.

Brahimi, who is trying to build on the agreement reached in Geneva on June 30, has met three times with senior Russian and US diplomats since early December and met Assad in Damascus.

Russia and the United States disagreed over what the June agreement meant for Assad, with Washington saying it sent a clear signal he must go and Russia contending it did not.

Moscow has been reluctant to endorse the “Arab Spring” popular revolts of the last two years, saying they have increased instability in the Middle East and created a risk of radical Islamists seizing power.

Although Russia sells arms to Syria and rents one of its naval bases, the economic benefit of its support for Assad is minimal. Analysts say President Vladimir Putin wants to prevent the United States from using military force or support from the UN Security Council to bring down governments it opposes.

However, as rebels gain ground in the war, Russia has given indications it is preparing for Assad’s possible exit, while continuing to insist he must not be forced out by foreign powers.

Opposition activists say a military escalation and the hardship of winter have accelerated the death toll.

Yesterday, the skies were clear and jets and helicopters fired missiles and dropped bombs on a line of towns to the east of Damascus where rebels have pushed out Assad’s ground forces, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Rebel forces have acquired more powerful anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons during attacks on Assad’s military bases. REUTERS

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