MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia said on Thursday international talks on the Syria conflict should pursue a formula for a political transition but must not decide whether President Bashar al-Assad is barred from a possible national unity government.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said talks in Geneva on Saturday to discuss U.N. envoy Kofi Annan’s transition plan would set conditions for the start of a national dialogue among all Syrians, but “not predetermine its contents”.
Asked at a news briefing if Assad’s exclusion from power would be acceptable to his staunch ally Russia, Lavrov said the configuration of a new Syrian government should rest with its people and not imposed by outside powers.
“We do not support and cannot support any kind of meddling from outside, the imposition of recipes. This applies to the fate of Bashar al-Assad. It, this fate, must be decided by the Syrians, the Syrian people themselves,” Lavrov told a briefing.
His comments appeared to open the door to Russia accepting a departure of Syria’s authoritarian leader if this were agreed by all sides involved in transition negotiations aimed at ending the 16-month-old conflict in Syria.
Syrian opposition groups said they would reject Annan’s plan unless it explicitly required Assad to step down before a unity government is formed.
Diplomatic sources at the United Nations said the proposal does not stipulate Assad’s resignation, although it does say the unity government could not include figures who jeopardize stability.
U.N. diplomats said on Wednesday Russia and other powers have backed the plan for a Syrian national unity cabinet that could include government and opposition members, although Assad’s role under such a plan remains unclear.
But, speaking in Moscow, Lavrov said Annan’s proposal was not, however, a final document, and he expressed dismay that it had been leaked to the media ahead of the Geneva talks.
Lavrov hailed the talks as a chance to launch a political dialogue in Syria but criticized the exclusion of regional power Iran from the meeting bringing together the U.N. Security Council permanent members and Middle East governments.
“Undoubtedly Iran is an influential player in this whole situation ... I consider it a mistake to leave it out,” Lavrov said after meeting Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdesslem.
He accused Washington of indulging in double standards by balking at including envoys from Tehran, its arch-enemy - and a close ally of Assad - since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Annan has said that Iran should attend the Geneva talks, but diplomats say that the United States, Saudi Arabia and other countries objected.
Moscow has used its U.N. Security Council vote to blunt efforts to condemn Assad and secure his exit, shielding Damascus from harsher sanctions over his military crackdown on the uprising against 42 years of rule by his family.
If Assad bowed out, Russia could lose its firmest foothold in the Middle East. Syria buys arms from Russia worth billions of dollars and the Russian navy uses the Tartus naval base, its only permanent warm-water port outside the former Soviet Union.
Moscow has ruled out military intervention in Syria after it condemned NATO air strikes, made possible by its abstention from a Security Council vote, that helped Libyan rebels oust Muammar Gaddafi in another popular Arab uprising last year.
Lavrov reiterated those warnings on Thursday, saying the consequences of intervention in Syria would be “catastrophic.”
Despite its unbending rhetoric, analysts said, Moscow was inching toward lending support to Assad’s transition from power as international pressure on the Syrian leader builds.
“The Russian position started to gradually transform quite a bit several weeks ago,” Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, told Reuters.
“I think Russia’s final position will be a government without Assad but which will include representatives of the current regime, representatives of minorities, and guarantees for Assad and his family’s personal security,” he said.
Andrey Baklitskiy of the Centre for Policy Studies said Moscow could step in to broker a deal for Assad to safely leave Syria. “That could then open doors for transition,” he said.
“The Russian authorities are everything but stupid, and why would they support somebody who is losing power?”
Additional reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel and Nastassia Astrasheuskaya,; Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel,; Editing by Douglas Busvine and Mark Heinrich