US fails to win Russia call for Assad ouster


Russia said Friday after high-stakes talks with the US pointman on Syria that it did not know if President Bashar al-Assad intended to leave power but made no formal call on him to go.
Senior Russian diplomats said they also told visiting special envoy Fred Hof that Moscow was willing to agree changes to international mediator Kofi Annan’s peace plan for Syria as long as they kept the tattered initiative alive. The comments signalled no shift in Russia’s position on a crisis that has killed more than 13,500 people and has set Moscow at loggerheads with the West since strongman Vladimir Putin’s return to an historic third Kremlin term. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had dispatched Hof to Moscow after agreeing not to make Assad’s ouster a precondition for a settlement in Syria, while vowing to make it the ultimate goal.
Hof was received by the Russian foreign ministry’s deputies in charge of UN and Middle Eastern affairs — two men believed to have some of the world’s closest access to Assad’s increasingly isolated regime. But Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said after the meeting that Russia had no information about a leadership change being planned in Damascus and pointedly failed to make any public call for one. “I do not know anything about such plans by the Syrian president,” Bogdanov told the state news agency RIA Novosti when asked after the meeting if Moscow was aware of any intention by Assad to step down. Moscow has recently been more critical of its Soviet-era ally while still supplying it with weapons and adamantly vowing to resist all calls for foreign military intervention or new economic sanctions against Assad.
Russia has made a counter-proposal — met with great scepticism by the United States — that would see regional players such as Iran sit down with world powers and try to negotiate a joint strategy suitable to all Syrians. The foreign ministry said in a statement issued after the meeting that the two sides discussed “the practical aspects of Russia’s initiative to urgently convene an international conference on Syria.” The statement made no reference to Assad. Bogdanov for his part said Russia was willing to support “corrections” to Annan’s initiative “to ensure the best possible conditions for its implementation by all sides.”
He did not specify what those corrections would be. Annan told the UN General Assembly on Thursday that “clearly, the time has come to determine what more can be done to secure implementation of the plan — and what other options exist to address the crisis.” A diplomat present at his subsequent closed-door briefing to UN Security Council members said Annan also renewed calls for the major powers to warn Assad of “clear consequences” if he failed to comply with the peace plan. Russia argues that it has been pressing Assad’s representatives on an almost daily basis and charges that open Arab world support for Syrian rebels is just as big an obstacle to peace.
“The opinion being imposed by some interested states about allegedly only Russia and China having a ‘special’ position on Syria has nothing to do with reality,” Putin’s foreign policy adviser Yury Ushakov said in a statement. China has joined Russia’s veto of two Security Council resolutions against Assad and Ushakov said the two neighbours had agreed during this week’s summit to “coordinate our actions on Syria as closely as possible.”