Russia: Assad Can't be Forced to Step Down
Russia acknowledged on Saturday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will not be persuaded to quit but insisted there is still a chance of finding a political solution to the 21-month-old conflict, AFP reported.
International peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi warned that Syria was facing a choice between "hell or the political process" after talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on his end-of-year bid to accelerate moves to halt a conflict that monitors say has now killed more than 45,000 people.
The talks came amid emerging signs that Russia was beginning to distance itself from Assad's government and urgent efforts by Brahimi to resurrect a failed peace initiative that world powers agreed to in Geneva in June.
"It is really indispensible that the conflict finishes in 2013 and really the beginning of 2013," the envoy said, according to AFP.
Lavrov said both he and Brahimi agreed there was hope for a solution as long as world powers put pressure on both sides.
"The confrontation is escalating. But we agree the chance for a political solution remains," he said.
Moscow has been under intense pressure to urge the leadership of its last Middle East ally to accept a face-saving agreement that would see the rebels assume gradual command as the fighting reaches Damascus itself.
Lavrov appeared to betray a hint of frustration when revealing that Assad had this week told Brahimi that he does not intend to leave, reported AFP.
"Regarding Bashar al-Assad, he repeatedly said, both publicly and in private... that he is not planning to leave, that he will remain in his post," Lavrov said.
"There is no possibility to change this position."
Brahimi painted a stark picture of Syrian neighbors Jordan and Lebanon being overrun by a million refugees should heavy fighting for the seat of power break out in Syria's five-million-strong capital.
If this fighting "develops into something uglier... (refugees) can go to only two places -- Lebanon and Jordan.
"So if the alternative is hell or the political process, we have all of us got to work ceaselessly for a political process," Brahimi said.
Lavrov echoed that message by warning that Syria threatened to dissolve into a failed state similar to Somalia, a nation overrun by warlords and jihadists.
"Syria must have a stable political process. That is one alternative," the Russian minister said.
"The other alternative is the Somalisation of Syria -- and you can only imagine the consequences of that."
Brahimi's trip came amid a flurry of diplomatic activity in Moscow that saw Russia issue an invitation to talks to the armed opposition National Coalition -- recognized by Western governments as sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
The invite was rebuffed by National Coalition chief Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, drawing an angry response from Lavrov.
"I understand that Mr. Khatib is not very fluent in politics and maybe he could benefit by hearing our position not from the media... but directly from us," he said.
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.
Meanwhile on the ground in Syria, at least 150 charred corpses were found Saturday in Deir Baalba in Homs.
Earlier Saturday, Syrian regime forces killed 20 people in a town near Aleppo. Eighty other people were killed nationwide, according to opposition Coordination Committees.