Dmitry Zaks
Last updated: 4 February, 2014

Syria opposition chief to press Russia on Assad

Russia said Tuesday that Syria would ship out another stockpile of chemical weapons this month, as the opposition sought to persuade Moscow to push for a transitional government for the war-scarred nation.

Russia, traditionally a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, downplayed concerns that the regime was falling behind in the timetable to remove its chemical weapons — an agreement reached in September with Moscow and Washington that averted US military strikes.

“I would not dramatise the disarmament issue,” Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov told the RIA Novosti news agency.

“Literally yesterday the Syrians announced that they are planning to move out a large amount of chemical substances in February,” he added.

“They are ready to complete this process by March 1, in accordance with the deadlines set by the OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons).”

The US says only two small shipments of chemicals worth about four percent of Syria’s declared arsenal have left the Syrian port of Latakia so far — far less than the 700 tonnes the country was supposed to dispose of by the end of 2013.

Gatilov attributed the delay to unforeseen circumstances and security issues, but said that “as far as the deadlines, everything is going rather well.”

His comments came after Syrian National Coalition chief Ahmad Jarba met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in a bid to get Moscow’s help in making the regime accept a political transition that could pave the way to Assad’s removal from power.

The opposition and regime made little headway at a 10-day peace conference in Switzerland that ended Friday without a commitment from Damascus to attend a new round of negotiations set for February 10.

The rival delegations made no progress on what mediators had defined as relatively easy trust-building issues — local ceasefires and humanitarian corridors — much less on the opposition’s demand for a transitional government.

Gatilov indicated Tuesday that Moscow expected Assad to firmly state his delegation’s intentions to resume the Geneva II peace talks next week.

Following his meeting with Lavrov, Jarba stressed his umbrella opposition group was especially concerned with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem’s refusal in Geneva to hold any discussion about a transitional government.

He told reporters Lavrov had treated the opposition’s stance on Assad with “understanding”.

“We told the Russian leaders that we are open to any solutions that ensure Syria’s future — a future that is free of Assad and his war criminals,” Jarba said.

“I think that we have entered a new stage of relations with Russia,” the opposition leader added.

“We now have good relations… that I hope will continue to develop further.”

Out of synch

But Lavrov himself gave no sign that Moscow intended to step up its pressure on the regime.

Russia’s top diplomat simply told Jarba in opening comments available to reporters that “today’s conversation will be very, very useful in helping clarify approaches that could help advance the Geneva process.”

Jarba earlier said Lavrov had assured him that the Kremlin’s position on Assad’s role was not set in stone.

But Moscow has sided with its traditional Middle East ally in public and said that Assad’s departure should not be a precondition for political change.

Washington — a firm backer of the Syrian opposition — and Moscow had pushed the sides into the Geneva talks in a bid to end nearly three years of fighting that has claimed more than 135,000 lives.

Tuesday’s diplomatic efforts came against the backdrop of a report by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights of renewed barrel bomb attacks by Syrian army helicopters on the major northern city of Aleppo.

The British-based monitor said similar raids had killed at least eight people Tuesday, and more than 150 in the past four days.

US Secretary of State John Kerry called the raids “the latest barbaric act of a regime that has committed organised, wholesale torture, used chemical weapons, and is starving whole communities by blocking delivery of food to Syrian civilians in urgent need”.