MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia is prepared to see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad leave power as part of a political settlement following 15 months of bloodshed, but is not in talks with other nations on the fate of the Syrian leader, a senior Russian diplomat said on Tuesday.
Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov also said a Yemen-style power transition was unlikely to work in Syria because many of Assad’s foes are unwilling to negotiate with the government, Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported.
Moscow has used its U.N. Security Council veto and other tools to protect Assad, who has given Russia a firm Middle East foothold and is a client for Russian weapons.
Russia is under pressure to abandon its support or at least push Assad harder to adhere to a U.N.-backed ceasefire and a faltering peace plan brokered by envoy Kofi Annan.
Gatilov reiterated Russian statements - also repeated on Friday by President Vladimir Putin - that Moscow is open to Assad’s exit from power if it results from a Syrian political dialogue without foreign interference.
“We have never said or posed the condition that Assad must necessarily stay in power as the result of this political process,” state-run Itar-Tass quoted Gatilov as saying in Geneva, a day after a meeting Annan. “This issue must be resolved by the Syrians themselves.”
He said Russia “is not holding any contacts or discussions with anyone about whether Assad should stay in power or go.”
U.S. President Barack Obama told G8 nations including Russia last month that Assad must leave power and pointed to Yemen, where foreign states helped engineer a handover from longtime leader Ali Abdullah Saleh to an administration led by his vice president, as a model for a potential transition.
Media reports have suggested Washington is trying to enlist Russia’s support for such a plan. In a telephone call on Saturday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton conveyed a message that ”we’ve got to start working together to help the Syrians with a serious political transition strategy.
A U.S. Treasury Department official in Russia for talks on implementation of sanctions against Iran and other issues “also discussed the need for increasing pressure on the Syrian regime,” the U.S. Embassy said on Tuesday.
Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen “called once more on the Russian government to support international efforts to secure a peaceful transition of power in Syria,” the embassy said.
Russian diplomats have favourably compared the conduct of Western and Arab nations in Yemen to methods some states have used to seek Assad’s ouster, such as sanctions against the government and support for its foes. They have pointed to the difference as a sign of double standards.
But Gatilov expressed doubt the formula used in Yemen could succeed in Syria.
“It would be good if there was ... political desire on both sides that would allow for progress toward a resolution, and in that case it would probably be appropriate to talk about the Yemen model,” he said. “But in Syria, we see no such desire on the opposition side.”
Syrian rebels said on Monday they were no longer bound by a U.N.-backed truce because Assad had failed to observe their Friday deadline to implement the ceasefire.
Russia expressed “serious concern” about that decision in a Foreign Ministry statement on Tuesday, saying it was aimed “to undermine international efforts to foster a shift from confrontation to a political process”.
In Beijing, Putin and Chinese President Hu Jintao urged the world not to abandon Annan’s plan, which calls for a “political process” but does includes no specific call for Assad to leave power.
Russia and China used their U.N. Security Council vetoes in February to block a Western-backed resolution supporting an Arab League call for Assad to cede power.
Editing by Rosalind Russell