Russia to host Assad's opponents amid wrangling over his fate

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 03, 2012 7:21 AM
Russia to host Assad's opponents amid wrangling over his fate

By Gabriela Baczynska

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Syrian opposition leaders will visit Moscow next week in what could be a litmus test for an agreement struck by the United States, Russia and other major powers on a plan for political transition in Syria.

"We will use this coming meeting with yet another Syrian opposition group to continue work to end violence and start Syrian dialogue between the government and all groups of the Syrian opposition as soon as possible," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Tuesday.

All parties to Saturday's Geneva agreement hailed the deal as "concrete progress" towards resolving the crisis, but there was no timeline for specific actions and no consensus on the key question of whether President Bashar al-Assad must step down.

The agreement brokered by international envoy Kofi Annan says a transitional governing body "shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent". An earlier draft was watered down after Russia stonewalled, adamant that Assad should not be forced out.

As soon as it was agreed, both sides immediately disagreed about what the deal meant for Assad.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said it did not imply at all that he should step down, but U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said "Assad will still have to go". French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Assad was "finished", while China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi urged patience.

Assad himself said Syria would not accept anything imposed from outside. In an interview with Turkish media, published in full by Syria's state news agency SANA on Tuesday, he stressed the importance of protecting Syria's sovereignty and non-interference in its internal affairs.

"For us, what American officials say has no credibility in general," he said.

"Second, the American position is already hostile to Syria in this crisis. They are part of the problem. They support the terrorists very clearly. That's why we are not very interested in what this or that official says during this crisis."

He added that if elections showed the Syrian people wanted him to step down, he would do so. Assad faces his next election in 2014 but, in a one-party state where elections are widely considered not to be free and fair, he is unlikely to face much of a challenge.

BUMPY ROAD

Asked about the deal at a U.N. briefing on Tuesday, Annan's spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said there was agreement in principle on a political transition, which should not be underestimated.

"It's going to be a long, bumpy road. But we believe sincerely that the commitments made in Geneva on Saturday were genuine and if applied as promised - if applied as promised - will have an effect on the dynamics on the ground," he said.

"Don't forget that many forces have joined hands here on Saturday ... Don't underestimate the degree of a shift that happened here on Saturday, especially in the Russian and Chinese positions, to accept the principle of a policy change," he said.

He said the opposition leaders going to Moscow would "throw their weight behind the implementation of this resolution".

Lavrov said different Syrian opposition groups, as well as the participants at the Geneva talks, had been interpreting Russia's position differently.

"Unfortunately, some representatives of the Syrian opposition started saying the Geneva decision was not acceptable to them, while some of the participants of the Geneva meeting distorted the agreements we had come to," he said.

He said Russia's position on the agreement was clear and it did not mean to say more than is written down in the communique.

"Our position is honest, we are not trying to hint at anything more than what is written down in the text," he added.

(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Nastassia Astrasheuskaya and Tom Miles; Editing by Andrew Roche)