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      Russia Urges Assad to Talk to Opposition

      Russia, Syria's closest ally despite months of violence, encourages Assad to hold dialogue with opposition.
      By Elad Benari, Canada
      First Publish: 12/28/2012, 9:55 PM

      Sergei Lavrov
      Sergei Lavrov
      Reuters

      Russia, the only world power with close ties to the Syrian regime, urged President Bashar al-Assad on Friday to talk to the opposition, AFP reported.

      Meanwhile Moscow itself put out feelers that received a cold reception from the rebels, the report said.

      The new pressure on Assad came as Moscow revved up its bid to save a tattered peace process by first hosting a top Damascus envoy and then planning for a meeting Saturday with Syria peace mediator Lakhdar Brahimi.

      Russia also invited the head of the opposition National Coalition for talks in either Moscow or a regional capital, marking the Kremlin's first contact with a group formed in November and recognized by the West as the sole legitimate representative of Syrians.

      But Moscow still views Assad as the legitimate leader, and its outreach to the regime's opponents received a cool response from National Coalition chief Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib who rejected the invitation to Moscow, accusing Russia of interference.

      "We have said frankly that we will not go to Moscow," Khatib told Al-Jazeera television.

      "We want apologies from (Russian Foreign Minister) Sergei Lavrov," for "interfering" in Syrian affairs and for Moscow's refusal to condemn "massacres" committed by the regime, he said.

      "They have to issue a clear condemnation of the regime's brutality and a clear call for the departure of President Bashar al-Assad, which is a condition for any negotiations," said Khatib.

      If these conditions were met, talks could be held with the Russians "but only in an Arab country and if there is a clear agenda", he said.

      Lavrov said Russia still refused to back international calls on Assad to step down, but made explicit that Russia wanted Assad to put all options on the table after 21 months of violence that have claimed more than 45,000 lives.

      "We actively encouraged... the Syrian leadership to maximally put into action its declared readiness for dialogue with the opposition," Lavrov told reporters when asked about his meeting on Thursday with Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad.

      In recent weeks, Moscow appears to have distanced itself from the rulers of what was its last big ally in the Middle East. President Vladimir Putin has twice this month said that Moscow has no intention of propping up Assad.

      A top Russian official recently hinted that Assad's days are numbered.

      The country's Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, Russia’s top envoy for Syria, said that recent events in Syria show that the government's grip on the fighting is slipping and that the rebels stand a real chance of defeating Assad.

      (Arutz Sheva’s North American Desk is keeping you updated until the start of Shabbat in New York. The time posted automatically on all Arutz Sheva articles, however, is Israeli time.)