Russia's clarified stance on Assad suggests divergence with Iran
Moscow says Syrians must decide president’s fate as joint Russia-US military tests are run
Russian ground staff members check on a Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jet at the Hmeymim air base near Latakia, Syria. US fighter aircraft and a Russian fighter aircraft conducted a communications test over south-central Syria to validate safety protocols agreed between the two countries. Photograph: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation/Reuters
Russia does not see keeping Bashar al-Assad in power as a matter of principle, the country’s foreign ministry said on Tuesday. The statement suggests a divergence of opinion with Iran, the Syrian president’s other main international backer.
Fuelling speculation of Russian-Iranian differences over Mr Assad, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard suggested on Monday that Tehran may be more committed to the president than Moscow was.
However, one senior regional official cautioned against reading too much into the public statements on Mr Assad, saying there is no difference between Russia and Iran over him. They agree on his staying in office and that it is up to the Syrian people to elect their president, the official said.
While Russia and Iran have been Mr Assad’s foremost foreign supporters during Syria’s four-year-old war, the US, its Gulf allies and Turkey have insisted the president must step down as part of any eventual peace deal.
Asked by a reporter on Tuesday if saving Assad was a matter of principle for Moscow, Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said: “Absolutely not, we never said that.”
“We are not saying that Assad should leave or stay,” RIA news agency quoted her as saying.
But another regime change in the Middle East could be a catastrophe that “could simply turn the whole region into a large black hole”, she added.
Ms Zakharova said Russia had not changed its policy on Mr Assad and that his fate should be decided by the Syrian people.
But her remarks appeared to suggest a difference of approach compared with Iran, which has sent forces to fight alongside Mr Assad’s military and ordered in fighters from the Lebanese Hizbullah group, which it controls.
The head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, Maj Gen Mohammad Ali Jafari, acknowledged that Russia “may not care if Assad stays in power as we do”. The Tasnim news agency quoted him on Monday as saying: “We don’t know any better person to replace him.”
Nevertheless, the senior regional official, who is familiar with diplomatic contacts on Syria, poured cold water on any suggestion of a split. “Forget it. There is no Russian-Iranian difference over the matter of Assad ” the official told Reuters.
“We are talking about a national dialogue in Syria and an expanded government and a constitutional process. We are not at all talking about what is called a transitional period,” Faisal Mekdad said during a visit to Iran.
He said Mr Assad had been elected president by a large majority and the Syrian people had confirmed there was no alternative to him as leader.
Russia intervened militarily at the end of September to support Mr Assad by launching bombing raids on rebel groups trying to overthrow him.
Russian and US air forces held a joint training exercise in Syria on Tuesday aimed at preventing dangerous encounters between their aircraft, Russia’s defence ministry said.
Syria’s skies are becoming increasingly crowded as Russia and a US-led coalition carry out separate air campaigns.
A US military official said a US fighter aircraft and a Russian fighter aircraft conducted a communications test over south-central Syria to validate safety protocols agreed between the two countries last month.
The two aircraft came within 8km (5 miles) of one another in a test that lasted about 3 minutes, the US official said.
Syrian government officials and members of the country’s splintered opposition could meet in Moscow next week, Interfax news agency quoted Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov as saying.
He did not say which opposition members might attend, but the invitation appeared to suggest a change in tone from Moscow, which has until now dismissed such groups.
Moscow’s goal was not to support Assad, but to save the Syrian state and defeat terrorist groups, a Russian analyst said. “It is the beginning of a political process,” said Irina Zvyagelskaya, a Middle East analyst at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov will meet UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura in Moscow on Wednesday to discuss attempts to start a dialogue between Damascus and the opposition, Moscow’s foreign ministry said.
At the talks in Vienna, where Russia was the leading player, Moscow said it wanted opposition groups to participate in future discussions on the Syria crisis and exchanged a list of 38 names with Saudi Arabia.
The list included mostly former and current members of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SNC), Syria’s Western-backed political opposition bloc, Kommersant newspaper reported on Tuesday.
On the battlefield, a newly-formed US-backed Syrian rebel alliance advanced against Islamic State (IS) in the northeast province of Hasaka on Tuesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.
In the west, Russian warplanes carried out airstrikes in Hama province while unidentified jets bombarded the outskirts of the IS-held city of Raqqa in the north.
Syrian government forces and allied militia clashed in fierce battles with Islamic State fighters southeast of Aleppo city, the Observatory said.