At least seven people were killed across Syria yesterday as Russian media reported the West is seeking to persuade Moscow to host Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in exile as a way out of the escalating crisis.
Russia has indicated it will stay away from a Paris meeting on the situation in its key Middle East ally after accusing the West of seeking to distort a deal for a political transition in the violence-hit nation.
Moscow’s move to shun tomorrow’s “Friends of Syria” gathering comes after UN and Arab League international peace envoy Kofi Annan said a ceasefire was imperative.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has hailed the Geneva accord based on proposals by Annan as an “important step,” but said Western capitals had read more into the final statement than what was written on paper.
World powers agreed a plan for a Syria transition that did not make an explicit call for al-Assad to quit power, but the West swiftly made clear it saw no role for him in a unity government.
“These [Geneva] agreements are not there to be interpreted. They mean exactly what is said in the communique and we need to follow the agreements that were made,” Lavrov said.
His comments came soon after Annan spokesman Ahmad Fawzi told reporters on Tuesday that a “shift” in positions by Russia and its diplomatic ally China at the Geneva talks should not be underestimated.
Russia’s Kommersant daily reported that Western nations led by the US are seeking to persuade Moscow to host al-Assad in exile.
Quoting a Russian diplomatic source, it said there were “active attempts” to persuade Moscow to offer a home to al-Assad, whose fate has become a major sticking point.
However, Russia has so far not been receptive to the idea, even though Kremlin sources put al-Assad’s chances of political survival at “10 percent,” it said.
Annan said a real ceasefire was imperative, as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the death toll reached 69 on Tuesday, including 36 civilians, nearly three months after a truce he brokered failed to take effect.
Monitors say the conflict has killed more than 16,500 people since March last year.
The Observatory yesterday reported dawn clashes in Jaraman south of Damascus near a branch of the air force intelligence service, one of the most feared in al-Assad’s regime.
It also reported at least seven people killed nationwide, among them four civilians in an ambush in the village of Maaret al-Numan in the northwest province of Idlib.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Russia would not attend the Paris meeting, which is aimed at coordinating Western and Arab efforts to stop the violence.
“Russia was invited. They made it known that they did not want to participate, which is not a surprise,” he told reporters.
Russia and China did not attend any previous meetings of the group.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the Russians were free to decide whether to attend the Paris talks or not.
“It’s their choice. We think this is a very valuable forum that brings together a much larger group of countries. The door is open to them if they want to join. It’s up to them if they don’t,” Nuland told reporters.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will lead the US delegation, an official said, with Nuland saying more than 100 countries would attend the talks “to support change and democracy and pluralism” in Syria.