MOSCOW Russia would accept a Yemen-style power transition in Syria if it were decided by the people, Russia's deputy foreign minister said on Thursday, the latest statement seemingly aimed at distancing the Kremlin from President Bashar al-Assad.
The United States is seeking Russia's support in getting Assad to step aside but Mikhail Bogdanov said the president's fate was "not a question for us" but for the Syrian people.
"Application of the so-called Yemen scenario to resolve the conflict in Syria is possible only if the Syrians themselves agree to it," Bogdanov said, according to the Interfax news agency.
"The Yemen scenario was discussed by the Yemenis themselves. If this scenario is discussed by Syrians themselves and is adopted by them, we are not against it."
Street protests against Assad that began 15 months ago have evolved largely into armed insurgency as he stepped up efforts to crush dissent. Two reported massacres of civilians by pro-Assad forces since May 25 have heightened Western calls for Assad to make way for a democratic transition.
Moscow has used its U.N. Security Council veto and other tools to protect Assad, who has given Russia a firm foothold in the Middle East and is a buyer of Russian weapons. The Kremlin position has shielded him from condemnation by the council and parried Western and Arab efforts to push him from power.
U.S. President Barack Obama told G8 nations including Russia last month that Assad must leave power and pointed to Yemen as a model for a potential transition.
Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh ceded power in February to a transitional administration led by his vice president after a year of mass protests against his autocratic rule and increasing armed anarchy.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Western and Arab nations meeting in Istanbul on Wednesday that a transition strategy in Syria must include Assad's full transfer of power, a senior State Department official said.
Clinton is sending Fred Hof, a senior State Department official who works on Syria, to Moscow. Hof will meet Russian Foreign Ministry officials on Friday, ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said.
The senior U.S. official suggested Clinton was trying to lay down minimum benchmarks for how a Syrian transition could unfold with the hope that Russia might back it.
Lukashevich told a weekly briefing Russia was "conducting very active dialogue with the (U.S.) administration" on Syria and said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was in "constant contact not only with ... Annan but also with Hillary Clinton."
"This is a normal process in terms of searching for optimal variants for strengthening the international coalition in support of Kofi Annan's plan," Lukashevich said. The central plank of Annan's plan was a ceasefire that never took hold.
Lukashevich avoided a direct answer when asked whether Russia had offered Assad asylum.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and other officials have maintained that Moscow is not out to protect Assad and is open to his exit from power if this arises from a Syrian political dialogue without foreign interference.
Bogdanov said Assad's fate was not Russia's to decide. "This is not a question for us, it is a question for the Syrian political forces and society," he said.
In a statement during a visit to Beijing by Putin, a regional security alliance led by Russia and China said it opposes military interference, forced power handovers and unilateral sanctions in dealings with Middle East states.
(Editing by Robert Woodward)