Russia 'softens stance on Assad remaining in power' at Syria talks
Russia has made clear to Western nations that it has no objection to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stepping down as part of a peace process, in a softening of its publicly stated staunch backing of Assad ahead of talks in New York, diplomats said.
Russia, like Iran, has been a firm ally of Assad and is intervening militarily on his behalf against anti-government forces in the five-year civil war that has claimed more than a quarter of a million lives. Both Russia and Iran have long insisted Assad's fate should be decided in a nationwide vote.
Western powers, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and others reluctantly agreed to allow Assad to remain in place during a transition period, a compromise that has opened the door to a shift on the part of Russia, Western diplomats said. "What you've got is a move that will end up with Assad going," a senior Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
"And the Russians have got to the point privately where they accept that Assad will have gone by the end of this transition, they're just not prepared to say that publicly," he added. Several other Western officials confirmed the diplomat's remarks.
The US, Russia along with Iran, Saudi Arabia and major European and Arab powers have agreed on a road map for a nationwide ceasefire, to have six months of talks between Assad's government and the opposition on forming a unity government to begin in January, and to have elections within 18 months.
US and European officials say that Assad cannot run in any elections organized along the lines major powers agreed in the two previous ministerial meetings in Vienna.
Despite the narrowing of disagreements, there was still a deep divide in the negotiations on ending Syria's civil war, diplomats and officials close to the talks said.
"Gradually the gap is narrowing but there is still a big gap," said one senior Western diplomat.