Russia said on Tuesday it was prepared to see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad leave power in a negotiated solution to end 15 months of bloodshed that has claimed more than 13,000 lives.
Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said a day after meeting mediator Kofi Annan in Geneva that Russia would back any peaceful settlement to the crisis as long as it did not involve the use of outside force.
The comments represent one of Russia’s most explicit declarations of a position first signalled by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov a day after a February 7 meeting in Damascus with Assad.
Lavrov at the time refused to explicitly back Assad and said the leadership structure of Moscow’s Soviet-era ally “should be the result of agreement between the Syrians themselves.”
Russia has been facing mounting pressure to back Assad’s departure as a first step in a settlement that would see his inner circle assume command on an interim basis.
The option is modeled on the recent transition in Yemen and has been backed by the US administration.
The New York Times has reported that US President Barack Obama plans to raise the option when he meets Vladimir Putin for the first time since his May return to the Russian presidency at next month’s G20 summit in Mexico.
Gatilov said the Yemeni model could only be relevant if the rebels agreed to lay down their arms and sit down for talks.
Gatilov’s comments came as another top Russian official announced that a US delegation headed by Washington’s Syria crisis pointman Frederic Hof would be travelling to Moscow later this week.