Syrian opposition rejects Russian invite


Syria’s opposition leader has rejected an invitation from Russia to join peace talks, dealing another blow to international hopes that diplomacy can be resurrected to end a 21-month civil war.

Russia, President Bashar al-Assad’s main international protector, said yesterday it had sent an invitation for a visit to Moaz Alkhatib, whose six-week-old National Coalition opposition group has been recognised by most western and Arab states as the legitimate voice of the Syrian people.

Ruled out

However, in an interview on Al Jazeera television, Mr Alkhatib said he had already ruled out such a trip and wanted an apology from Moscow for its support for Mr Assad.

“We have clearly said we will not go to Moscow. We could meet in an Arab country if there was a clear agenda,” he said.

“Now we also want an apology from [Russian foreign minister Sergei] Lavrov because all this time he said that the people will decide their destiny, without foreign intervention. Russia is intervening and meanwhile all these massacres of the Syrian people have happened, treated as if they were a picnic.”

With the rebels advancing steadily over the second half of 2012, diplomats have been searching for months for signs that Moscow’s willingness to protect Mr Assad is faltering.

So far Russia has stuck to its position that rebels must negotiate with Mr Assad’s government, which has ruled since his father seized power in a coup 42 years ago.

‘Realistic assessment’

“I think a realistic and detailed assessment of the situation inside Syria will prompt reasonable opposition members to seek ways to start a political dialogue,” Mr Lavrov said yesterday.

That was immediately dismissed by the opposition: “The coalition is ready for political talks with anyone . . . but it will not negotiate with the Assad regime,” spokesman Walid al-Bunni said. “Everything can happen after the Assad regime and all its foundations have gone. After that we can sit down with all Syrians to set out the future.”

Russia said it was behind the efforts of United Nations mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, fresh from a five-day trip to Damascus where he met Mr Assad. Mr Brahimi, due in Moscow for talks today, is touting a months-old peace plan for a transitional government.

That UN plan was long seen as a dead letter, foundering from the outset over the question of whether the transitional body would include Mr Assad or his allies. Mr Brahimi’s predecessor, Kofi Annan, quit in frustration shortly after negotiating it.

Seized control

However, with rebels having seized control of large sections of the country in recent months, Russia and the US have been working with Mr Brahimi to resurrect the plan as the only internationally recognised diplomatic negotiating track. – (Reuters)