Russia rejects U.S. pressure to seek Assad's exit - report

Tue Dec 11, 2012 4:47am EST

* Kommersant report says Clinton made request in talks with Lavrov

* Russia still baulking at public pressure on Assad, sanctions threats

By Steve Gutterman

MOSCOW, Dec 11 (Reuters) - Russia has resisted the most recent U.S. appeals to Moscow to persuade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to quit and threaten Damascus with sanctions in hopes of ending Syria's civil war, the Russian newspaper Kommersant reported on Tuesday.

The report in the influential daily, which cited no named source, added to public signals that Russia is not prepared to push for Assad's exit despite efforts to distance itself from its longtime ally and buyer of Russian arms.

"Russia does not intend to persuade the Syrian leader to leave his post voluntarily," said the report, reinforcing hints that a gap persists after two recent meetings of U.S. and Russian officials with international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

Brahimi is seeking a solution based on the June 30 Geneva Declaration, which called for a transitional government to defuse a 20-month-old uprising against Assad.

The proposal foundered at the time over the issue of Assad's fate, with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying the declaration made clear he should step down but Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying it did nothing of the kind.

President Vladimir Putin and other Russia officials have repeatedly said Moscow is not trying to prop up Assad but that he must not be ousted from power by external forces, citing the principle of non-interference in sovereign states' affairs.

Kommersant pointed to a more practical reason for Russia's resistance as well. "Moscow is convinced that Assad will not go voluntarily," it said, echoing remarks by Russian officials.

The report said Clinton had made the appeals to Russia in meetings with Lavrov in Dublin on Thursday - where they held talks with Brahimi - and in Cambodia last month.

According to the report, Clinton told Lavrov that Assad's government would fall sooner or later and that if a transitional government were not in place, Syria would likely be plunged into chaos and violence pitting sectarian groups against each other.

She also expressed concern that Assad's government might use chemical weapons against rebels fighting him, or that his allies could do so after the government falls, Kommersant said.

Russia shares U.S. concerns about further violence and the Syrian chemical arsenal, though it believes there is a greater threat that the weapons could fall into the hands of militants than be used by the government, Kommersant said.

It said Clinton also unsuccessfully urged Lavrov to consider threatening Assad's government with U.N.-backed economic and diplomatic sanctions if it did not stop all military action.

Russia and China have resisted efforts to impose sanctions on Syria and have vetoed three U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed at isolating Assad over the violence, which has killed at least 40,000 people.

Russian Foreign Ministry officials and U.S. officials in Moscow were not available for comment on the Kommersant report.