Russia on Thursday confirmed that some of its Western partners had asked Moscow to offer Syrian President Bashar al-Assad asylum but said it had dismissed the idea as a joke, as Germany said expressed regret over decisions by Beijing and Moscow to boycott the “Friends of Syria” group meeting in Paris.
The permanent members of the United Nations Security Council agreed at talks last week that a transitional government should be set up in Syria to end the bloodshed there but left open the question of what part Assad might play.
Lavrov said the issue of political asylum for Assad first came up during talks between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Berlin last month, adding that it was first raised by the German side, according to Reuters.
“Our side thought this was a joke and responded with a joke -- how about you, the Germans, take Mr Assad instead,” Lavrov said during a joint press appearance with his German counterpart Guido Westerwelle.
Lavrov said he was “quite surprised” when the idea was raised again during a meeting of Western and regional powers on the crisis in Geneva on Saturday.
“While discussing the subject of Syria, I heard them say they were convinced that we would take him and thus resolve all the problems of the Syrian people,” Russia’s top diplomat said, according to AFP.
Attempt to deceive seious people
“This is either a dishonest attempt to deceive serious people involved in foreign policy or a misunderstanding of the facts.”
Russia has previously rejected the idea of hosting the Syrian strongman while refusing to say whether it had actually been approached on the subject by the West.
Putin himself was forced to dismiss such speculation just days after his election to an historic third term in March.
Lavrov repeated Russia’s displeasure with the slow pace of reforms pursued by its Soviet-era ally while once again arguing that any attempts at forced regime change were doomed to end in even greater violence.
“Yes, the regime bears the main responsibility. And governments bear the main responsibility for ensuring the security of their people,” said Lavrov.
But those who seek regime change in Syria “ignore the fact that we are not talking about a few dozen people -- as they tell us we are -- but a very large part of the Syrian population that ties its security to the current president,” he stressed.
Lavrov also said Abdul Basset Sayda, the new leader of the main Syrian opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, and prominent opposition activist Michel Kilo would visit Moscow for talks next week. He gave no details.
Friends of Syria meeting in Paris
Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday she regretted decisions by China and Russia to boycott a “Friends of Syria” group meeting but that other world powers should not fall silent as a result.
“It is not a good sign when two powers do not take part in such conferences,” Merkel told reporters after talks with Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, when asked about the gathering Friday in Paris.
“But on the other hand we cannot always hinge everything on these countries -- that means it is better when all participate but I think we must go step-by-step here and keep trying to involve others.”
China joined Russia Thursday in boycotting the meeting aimed at coordinating efforts to stop the bloody strife in Syria. Both powers are veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.
The Paris meeting follows one in Tunis in February and another in April in Istanbul, both of which called in vain for tougher action against Assad’s government.
The United States, France, Britain, Germany and Arab nations Saudi Arabia and Qatar are leaders of the “Friends of Syria”, which has more than 60 members, including most EU states and many Arab League countries.
China backed Russia in Geneva on insisting that Syrians must decide how the transition should be carried out, rather than allow others to dictate their fate, and did not rule out Assad remaining in power in some form.
Merkel reiterated Thursday that Germany believed it would be “difficult” to achieve a peaceful solution with Assad at the helm.