Russia on Wednesday denied holding talks with the United States about offering Syrian President Bashar al-Assad exile as a way out of 16 months of bloodshed that has claimed more than 16,500 lives.
“The situation with the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is not being discussed with the United States,” Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the Interfax news agency.
Moscow’s Kommersant daily had earlier quoted a Russian diplomatic source as saying that Western nations led by the United States were making “active attempts” to persuade Moscow to offer a home to Assad.
But the report added that Moscow objected to the idea and Ryabkov stressed that Russia rejected a foreign solution to the brutal fighting now tearing apart it closest remaining Middle East ally.
“We have outlined our position many times: who holds power in Syria is an issue that must be settled by the Syrian people,” said Ryabkov.
“Schemes offered — or worse yet, imposed — from the outside can only hurt.”
Ryabkov’s brief and carefully-worded remarks made no reference to the talks Moscow says it has been having with the regime itself.
Russia has argued that it was not supporting Assad but the supremacy of international law that forbade specific foreign powers to dictate solutions to countries’ internal problems.
The idea of Assad leaving Syria has been mentioned for several months despite no sign of the strongman being ready to give up his grip on power.
President Vladimir Putin on March 7 publicly rejected the idea of Moscow hosting Assad.
Russia and other world powers at a meeting in Geneva on Saturday agreed a plan for a transition in Syria which did not make an explicit call for Assad to quit power.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday accused of some in the West of starting “to distort the agreements that were reached” in Geneva by saying that it left no future role for Assad.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been promoting that interpretation while arguing that Russia “had finally decided to back a transition away from his rule.”
“They have committed to trying,” she told CNN after the Geneva meeting.
“But they also admitted that they may or may not have enough leverage to convince not just one man, but a family and a regime that their time is over.”
Analysts in Moscow have also questioned whether Assad would be prepared to step down under any terms — including being granted international immunity from prosecution.
“I think that Assad will reject the offer if it comes,” Centre of Political Technologies researcher Alexei Makarkin told Interfax.