Syrian opposition leader Mouaz al-Khatib has met the foreign ministers of Russia and Iran for the first time, opening a window to a possible breakthrough in efforts to broker an end to Syria’s conflict.
Moscow on Saturday said it wanted to keep in regular contact with the opposition after talks between Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, and Khatib, leader of the National Coalition, recognised by Western powers as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
“I reminded Khatib that after the creation of the coalition and the appointment of their leader, we immediately demonstrated our interest in maintaining regular contact,” Russian news agencies quoted Lavrov as saying after the meeting on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference in Germany on Saturday.
“We will make that happen,” he added.
After a 45-minute meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, Khatib told Reuters news agency: “We agreed we have to find a solution to end the suffering of the Syrian people.”
Russia and Iran have been the staunchest allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad throughout the 22-month-long uprising in Syria that has left more than 60,000 dead and sent more than 700,000 people fleeing to neighbouring countries.
Assad a ‘tyrant’
Khatib, who has led the coalition since it was formed in Qatar late last year, also met separately with Joe Biden, US vice president, and joint UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.
Biden “urged Khatib to continue his efforts to maintain unity among the SOC [Syrian Opposition Coalition] leadership, to isolate extremist elements within the broader opposition, and to reach out to, and be inclusive of, a broad range of communities inside Syria, including Alawites, Christians and Kurds”, according to a White House statement.
Earlier he insisted Assad was a “tyrant” and must go.
The US and its allies have made repeated calls for Assad’s ousting. Russia has resisted any international action, arguing that the Syrian people must decide their own fate.
Khatib on Friday reiterated an earlier surprise announcement that he is ready for dialogue with the Damascus regime – subject to conditions including the release of 160,000 detainees.
Lavrov said Moscow welcomed the initiative, adding: “If we take into account the fact that the coalition was founded on a refusal to engage in a dialogue with the regime, it’s a very important step.”
Lavrov, whose country has blocked three UN Security Council resolutions sanctioning Assad for the violence, called for another meeting of the Syrian action group led by Brahimi to try to reach agreement on a transition, saying he believed progress was possible.
Moscow’s engagement with the Syrian opposition comes just days after Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev took the rare step of criticising Assad.
Assad made a “grave, perhaps fatal error” in not reaching out more quickly to the Syrian opposition “which was ready to sit at the negotiating table with him”, Russian news agencies quoted Medvedev as saying last Sunday.
“It seems to me that his chances of staying [in power] are shrinking day by day,” Medvedev told US-based CNN television.