In a possible sign of growing disillusionment that Syrian President Bashar Assad can hold on to power, Russia on Friday invited rebel leaders to Moscow for talks on solving Syria’s 21-month civil war.
Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency that he had invited the head of Syria’s opposition to talks in Moscow, Cairo or Geneva.
“The invitation has been handed over; it is in the hands of [National Coalition head] Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib,” Bogdanov said.
The talks with the opposition are likely designed to convince them to drop the calls for Assad’s ouster and sign on to the Geneva Initiative, which calls for an open-ended ceasefire, a transitional government to run the country until elections, and the drafting of a new constitution.
Rebels say too much blood has been spilled for Assad to be involved in any solution for the war-ravaged country.
Russia, among Assad’s strongest backers, has sent a number of signals lately that it is pulling back support for the embattled Syrian leader, who has fought a growing rebellion for almost two years.
Some 44,000 Syrians have been reported killed in the fighting, with hundreds of thousands more fleeing the country. Moscow has been key in selling the regime, arming it and shielding it from UN Security Council censure.
Earlier this month, Bogdanov said it seemed Assad was losing control of Syria, a sign of growing resignation to the idea that Assad could fall.
Still, top Russian officials have said they will not call for his ouster or offer him refuge should he decide to flee.
Bogdanov also said he expected January to see a three-way meeting on Syria between Russia, the US and special UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who is expected in Moscow Saturday.
On Thursday, Moscow, along with Brahimi, said it would make attempts to revive the Geneva plan.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich affirmed Russia’s commitment to the internationally brokered initiative.
“We continue to believe that there is no alternative to that document in trying to find a settlement in Syria,” Lukashevich said.
The plan was a non-starter for the opposition, because it did not explicitly ban authoritarian President Bashar Assad and other members of his regime from taking part in the transitional leadership, at Russia’s insistence.
The regime also opposed the initiative on the grounds that it would entail giving up power.