President Bashar al-Assad’s fate shouldn’t be the focus of an international conference to end Syria’s civil war because his removal would undermine the chemical disarmament process, a senior Russian lawmaker said.
Assad’s future can only be discussed after both sides begin talks known as Geneva II, according to Alexei Pushkov, head of the lower house of parliament’s foreign-affairs committee.
“They understand this in Washington, London and Paris,” Pushkov said today by phone from Moscow. “If you make Assad’s fate the main focus of the conference, this conference won’t lead to any results.”
Syria and Russia, one of its staunchest allies, are insisting Assad stay in power, while the coalition of rebel leaders is demanding he play no role in the political process after Geneva II. Efforts to start the talks have intensified sinceRussia and the U.S. reached a deal last month to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons, averting U.S. strikes in retaliation for a chemical attack the Obama administration said was carried out by Assad’s forces.
“Assad is the person who gave guarantees on behalf of Syria that the chemical weapons will be destroyed,” Pushkov said. “Any demands for him to step down immediately would undermine the implementation of this chemical disarmament process.”
Ahmed al-Jarba, the head of the rebel coalition, said after meeting 11 foreign ministers in London yesterday that his group will only attend Geneva II if the objective is to remove Assad and prosecute war criminals.
U.K. Foreign Minister William Hague said yesterday that while his government isn’t setting any “preconditions” for the Geneva talks, it expects them to lead to Assad’s departure.
More than 115,000 people have died in the conflict, which began in March 2011, according to the the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Another 2.1 million people have been forced to flee to neighboring countries, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said yesterday in Copenhagen.
“Right now we need to agree on a halt to hostilities and how to form a transitional government,” Pushkov said.
Russia condemns the goal of regime change in Syria in the closing communique of the London meeting of so-called “Group of Friends” of Syria in which al-Jarba participated, Russia’s foreign ministry said on its website today.
Russia and Syria, its only Arab ally, have had close ties since Assad’s father came to power in a bloodless coup in 1970. Russia maintains its only military base outside the former Soviet Union at Syria’s Mediterranean port of Tartus. Assad, 48, succeeded his father in 2000, the same year Vladimir Putin, 61, came to power.
The differences between the two allies and the rebels don’t bode well for the peace conference, which has been tentatively slated for Nov. 23-24, according to Torbjorn Soltvedt, an analyst at Maplecroft, a U.K.-based risk consultant.
“The dynamics of the conflict remain far from conducive to serious negotiations,” he said by e-mail.