UN-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi was set to hold talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow Saturday on how to end the 21-month Syrian conflict.
His aim, according to Al-Arabiya, was to end the violence and launch a national dialogue between the army and the opposition. Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad met Thursday with Lavrov to pave the way for Brahimi’s visit.
At a joint press conference before their meeting, Brahimi and Lavrov pushed for a speedy, Syrian-led resolution to the bloody uprising.
Lavrov said he believes there’s still a chance for a negotiated settlement to the conflict but urged regional players, namely Iran and Saudi Arabia, to use their influence to reach a conclusion to the war.
He also criticized the Syrian opposition for demanding that Syrian President Bashar Assad step down before entering into political negotiations. “The opposition should not have such preconditions,” he said, calling its refusal to negotiate with members of the Assad regime “a dead end.” The foreign minister again relayed the Syrian president’s refusal to step down.
Lavrov told reporters Friday 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 [Mouaz] al-Khatib.
For his part, Brahimi said that, for Syria, the only choices are “hell or a political process.” He called on all sides to work together toward a resolution.
The peace envoy warned about the regional sectarian implications of inaction and called for a “serious, credible, and working Syrian-led political process” to bring an end the conflict.
Israel Radio reported that at least 150 people were killed during fighting Friday in Syria. According to human rights groups, some 40,000 people have been killed since the start of the uprising — an average of about 1,000 per week — many of whom were women and children.
Brahimi’s trip to Russia, a long-time Syria ally, comes on the heels of his several-day visit to Damascus, during which he held meetings with Assad and called the situation on the ground “worrying.”
Brahimi and Russia both said earlier this week that they wanted to revive a long-shelved peace initiative that would call for a transitional government to run the country until elections can be held.
But it was unclear whether Brahimi’s proposals would block top members of Assad’s regime from participating, an omission which helped doom the plan this summer. Russia said it would not endorse plans that call for Assad’s ouster.
Much has changed in Syria in the past half-year. Rebels have seized more territory and a number of military installations in the country’s north and are expanding their control in suburbs of the capital.
This makes it increasingly unlikely that they will accept any plan that does not bar most members of Assad’s regime from a future government.
The original Geneva plan called for the establishment of a national unity government with full executive powers that could include members of Assad’s government, the opposition and other groups. It was to oversee the drafting of a new constitution and elections.
Because of Russian objections, that plan did not call specifically for Assad’s ouster, nor did it ban him from participation in the new government — making it a non-starter with the opposition.
“The Syrian people seek genuine change,” Brahimi told reporters in Damascus, adding that the transitional period “must not lead to the collapse of the state or the state’s institutions.”
Brahimi said that original plan could undergo some amendments, but did not specify what those could be. Nor did he specify how his plan would treat Assad. He said it still needed to be determined whether the called-for elections would be for president or parliament.
Russia has used its veto right alongside China at the UN Security Council to protect its old ally from international sanctions, but it has increasingly sought to distance itself from Assad. Lavrov said last week that Moscow would welcome any country’s offer of a safe haven to Assad, but has no intention of giving him shelter if he steps down.
His statements come in the wake of comments by officials, including President Vladimir Putin, that suggest Russia is resigned to its longtime ally, Assad, losing power.