PARIS The Russian ambassador to France said on Friday he believed that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had accepted he would have to leave power although only in an orderly fashion, but the Syrian government swiftly denied this.
Ambassador Alexandre Orlov told French RFI radio that Assad, embattled by a rebellion against his rule, signaled readiness to step down when he accepted a recent international declaration which foresaw a transition towards a more democratic Syria.
"At the Geneva conference, there was a final communique that foresees a transition towards a more democratic system," Orlov said. "This final communique was accepted by Assad. Assad nominated his representative to lead the negotiations with the opposition for this transition. That means he accepted to leave, but in an orderly way."
The Syrian Information Ministry quickly denied this, saying Orlov's remarks were "completely devoid of truth".
A spokesman for the Russian embassy in France later said Orlov's words were "taken out of context" and that he had no "exclusive information about Assad's readiness to step down", the Interfax news agency reported.
"The meaning of the ambassador's remarks was that Assad could leave power or stay in his post, but this decision must be taken not by the (U.N.) Security Council or anyone else, but only by the president himself and the Syrian people," Interfax quoted embassy spokesman Sergei Barinov as saying.
That was a repeat of Russia's standard line.
Barinov said Orlov meant that Assad's acceptance of the Geneva declaration "in principle could mean that he does not rule out the possibility of ceding power in a civilized manner".
Orlov had earlier told RFI his personal opinion was that Assad would not be able to remain in power. "I think it will be difficult for him to stay after everything that has happened. But essentially, he has accepted that he will have to leave."
Moscow has also argued that Assad is ready to comply with demands he delegate authority by naming a representative to conduct a political dialogue with the opposition.
RUSSIA PIVOTAL TO ASSAD'S FUTURE
Any Russian pressure on Assad to go would be highly significant because Moscow has long been his biggest ally and has repeatedly foiled efforts to isolate and dislodge him from power by blocking sanctions resolutions at the United Nations.
Moscow on Thursday vetoed a Western-sponsored U.N. Security Council resolution that would have contained a threat to impose sanctions if Syria did not comply with U.N.-Arab League Special Envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan.
Moscow has repeatedly said any deal must follow the principles outlined at talks in Geneva on June 30 between Annan and veto-holding members of the Security Council, which Russia until now had said did not specifically require Assad's exit.
"What Russia is defending is not Bashar al-Assad's regime, but international order that was created in 1945 around the United Nations," Orlov said. "For us it is a matter of principle that goes beyond what is happening in Syria."
A senior Western diplomat recommended caution with respect to Orlov's comments. "We have not heard Assad say he is willing to step down before," the diplomat said. "But what does he mean? Does he mean now or in two years time. We have to be cautious."
Asked about Orlov's comments, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said Assad was part of the problem and not the solution.
"We have been asking for a long time that he leaves the Syrian political landscape because for months he has committed too many massacres. Mr Assad is not part of the future for the Syrian people."
Separately, Interfax quoted a "military-diplomatic source" as saying Russia would not send three repaired military helicopters and air defense equipment to Syria until the situation there returns to normal.
Russia came under sharp Western criticism over what it acknowledged was a planned shipment of three repaired helicopters and air defense systems to Syria, and the cargo ship carrying the weapons last month turned back toward Russia when its London-based insurance company withdrew coverage.
Citing a separate source, Interfax reported that the three helicopters had been removed from the vessel, the Alaed, in the Russia Baltic Sea port of Baltiisk recently.
(Additional reporting by Khaled Yaboub Oweis in Amman, Dominic Evans in Beirut and Steve Gutterman in Moscow; Editing by Mark Heinrich)