Russia on Thursday confirmed receiving requests from its Western partners to help end the conflict in Syria by offering President Bashar al-Assad asylum, but said it had dismissed the idea as a joke.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the idea was first raised by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in her June meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin during his first trip to Europe since his election to a third term.
“Our side thought this was a joke and responded with a joke — how about you, the Germans, take Mr Assad instead,” Lavrov said at a joint press appearance with his German counterpart Guido Westerwelle.
Lavrov said he was therefore “quite surprised” when the proposal was aired again during a meeting of Western and regional powers on the 16-month Syria crisis in Geneva on Saturday.
The Geneva talks ended with agreement on a broad framework for a transition in Syria that made no specific mention of Assad or the future role that might be played by his inner circle.
“While discussing the subject of Syria, I heard them say they were convinced that we would take him and thus resolve all the problems of the Syrian people,” Lavrov said.
“This is either a dishonest attempt to deceive serious people involved in foreign policy or a misunderstanding of the facts.”
Russia has previously rejected the idea of hosting the Syrian strongman while refusing to say whether it had actually been approached on the subject by the West.
Putin himself was forced to dismiss such speculation on March 7.
Westerwelle did not comment on Lavrov’s account of Merkel’s talks in Berlin with Putin while confirming that Germany and Russia had some fundamental disagreements on Syria.
“We agreed that we need a political solution to the conflict,” Westerwelle said. “But one cannot neglect to mention that we disagree about ways to achieve that result.”
Russia argues that it stands in support not of its old Syrian ally but of international laws that forbid specific foreign powers from dictating solutions to other countries’ internal problems.
Lavrov repeated Russia’s displeasure with the slow pace of reforms by its Soviet-era ally while again arguing that any attempts at forced regime change were doomed to end in even greater violence.
“Yes, the regime bears the main responsibility. And governments bear the main responsibility for ensuring the security of their people,” said Lavrov.
But those who seek Assad’s ouster “ignore the fact that we are not talking about a few dozen people — as they tell us we are — but a very large part of the Syrian population that ties its security to the current president,” he said.