Russia said on Thursday that international talks on the Syria conflict should seek a framework for a political transition but must not determine whether President Bashar al-Assad is barred from a possible national unity government, as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Saint Petersburg ahead of talks on the Syrian crisis with her Russian counterpart.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said talks in Geneva on Saturday to discuss U.N. envoy Kofi Annan’s transition plan should set the conditions for the start of a national dialogue among all Syrians, but not predetermine its contents.
Asked if Assad’s exclusion from power would be acceptable to Russia, his main ally, Lavrov said the shape of a new Syrian government should rest with the Syrian 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, according to Reuters.
Syrian opposition groups said they would reject Annan’s political transition plan unless it explicitly requires Assad to step down before a unity government is formed.
The comments appeared to open the door for Russia to agree to Assad’s departure if it was demanded by all other sides involved in transition negotiations.
Diplomatic sources at the United Nations said the proposal, aimed at ending 16-months of bloodshed in Syria, does not stipulate Assad’s resignation although it does say the unity government could not include figures who jeopardize stability.
Meanwhile, Clinton arrived in Saint Petersburg on Thursday ahead of talks on the Syrian crisis with Lavrov on Friday that will come one day before they attend a conference in Geneva on Syria’s future.
The Russian foreign ministry announced that Lavrov and Clinton will give a joint press briefing on Friday at 1730 GMT in Saint Petersburg, according to AFP.
Russia and other powers have backed Annan’s plan for a Syrian national unity cabinet that could include government and opposition members. Assad’s role under such a plan remains unclear.
Speaking in Moscow, Lavrov said the Annan plan was not, however, a final document and he expressed dismay that it had been leaked to the media ahead of the Geneva talks.
He hailed the talks as a chance begin a political dialogue in Syria but criticized the exclusion of regional power Iran from the meeting, which brings together the U.N. Security Council permanent members and Middle East governments.
“Undoubtedly Iran is an influential player in this whole situation, as well as other countries in the region, and I consider it a mistake to leave it out of the Geneva meeting,” Lavrov said after meeting Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdesslem.
“This is applying dual standards,” he said.
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 veto power in the U.N. Security Council to blunt calls for Assad to cede power and shield Damascus from harsher international sanctions over its crackdown on the uprising.
With Assad’s departure, Russia faces losing its firmest foothold in the Middle East. Syria buys weapons 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.
After allowing NATO air strikes that helped Libyan rebels drive Muammar Qaddafi from power by abstaining from a U.N. Security Council resolution, Russia has stood firm against any kind of foreign military intervention in Syria.
Lavrov reiterated those warnings on Thursday, saying the consequences of a Libyan-style intervention would be “catastrophic.”