Russia’s foreign minister on Friday said Moscow had proposed talks with Syria’s main opposition coalition — but the overture was snubbed by the group’s leader.
Sergey Lavrov told reporters that Russia had contacted the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces through the Russian Embassy in Egypt and “we expressed readiness to conduct a meeting” with coalition leader al-Khatib.
The statement comes in the wake of comments by officials, including President Vladimir Putin, that suggest Russia is resigned to its longtime ally Syrian President Bashar Assad losing power.
Opposition leader Mouaz al-Khatib retorted: “If we don’t represent the Syrian people, why is he inviting us?” He called on Russia to demand that Assad step down, “a main condition in any negotiations.”
“The Syrian people haven’t heard one fair word from Russia to the Syrian people, especially to the children, innocent people and civilians who are killed every day with Russian weapons,” al-Khatib said in an interview with Al-Jazeera TV.
Israel Radio reported that al-Khatib demanded that Russia issue an apology to the Syrian people for its support of the Assad regime. He also suggested that if such talks do take place that they be held in an Arab country, like Qatar.
The opposition coalition was formed in November and recognized by Western countries as legitimate representatives of the Syrian people.
Although Moscow’s approach to the Syrian National Coalition falls short of the formal recognition accorded by Western countries, it acknowledges the group’s significance; Russia had previously held talks with more marginal opposition factions.
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.
Joshua Davidovich contributed to this report.