Russia, one of the few powers to maintain links with the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad, has proposed negotiations with the main opposition coalistion, but the group’s leader told Al Jazeera they will not travel to Moscow for talks.
Sergey Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, told a news conference on Friday that Russia has 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 Ahmad Mouaz al-Khatib.
Lavrov, speaking after a meeting with his Egyptian counterpart Mohamed Kamel Amr, said Russia was also urging Assad’s regime to make efforts toward a political settlement.
Russia’s talks with National Coalition head could take place in Moscow or a foreign location like Geneva or Cairo, Mikhail Bogdanov, the Russian deputy foreign minister, told the RIA Novosti news agency.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Khatib said the opposition was open to talks but would not travel to Moscow. He also demanded from Russia a “clear condemnation of the crimes committed by the Syrian regime”.
Russia has so far strongly criticised moves by Western and anti-Assad Arab states to recognise the National Coalition as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people since the group was formed last month.
Yet Russia is also involved in a frantic round of year-end diplomacy seeking to end the crisis.
Syria has been a longtime ally of Russia, hosting Russia’s only naval base outside the former Soviet Union and remaining a significant customer for Russia’s arms industry.
Russia appears to be slowly distancing itself from Assad. Putin last week said that Russia is “not preoccupied that much with the fate of the Assad regime” and “undoubtedly there is a call for changes”.
Bogdanov said he expected there to be a new three-way meeting between UN-Arab League Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and US and Russian representatives on the Syrian crisis in January.
Brahimi on Thursday called for a “real change” in Syria and the installation of a transitional government with full powers until elections can be held.
“We need to form a government with all powers … which assumes power during a period of transition. That transition period will end with elections,” Brahimi told reporters.
He did not specify a date for the envisaged elections, either presidential or parliamentary depending on what could be agreed. He also made no mention on the fate of Assad, whose current term expires in 2014.
“We prefer… a project whose facilitation the parties have agreed upon, and, if they do not, the last solution is going to the [UN] Security Council which will make a binding resolution.”
Brahimi, who while in Damascus has held talks with Assad as well as with opposition groups tolerated by the regime, replaced former UN chief Kofi Annan after his dramatic resignation in August over what he said was the failure of major powers to back his own six-point peace plan.
A diplomat at the UN Security Council said on Wednesday the veteran Algerian troubleshooter had received no support from either side since arriving in Syria on Sunday.