Russian and American diplomats have met in Geneva to discuss the future of Syria with the UN envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, according to the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, who insisted the meeting did not imply Moscow had softened in its support for the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad.
Lavrov said the ‘brainstorming session’ involving Brahimi with senior officials from Washington and Moscow, had been agreed last week when Lavrov, Brahimi and the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, met in Dublin.
But Lavrov stressed that the agreement to meet over the deeply divisive issue did not amount to Russian acknowledgement that Assad’s fall was inevitable.
“We are not holding [any talks] about Assad’s fate. And all attempts to present the situation in any other way are unscrupulous, even for diplomats from those countries which are well-known for their intention to distort facts in their favour,” Lavrov said.
The talks took place against a backdrop of intense fighting, with loyalist forces attempting to push back rebels from around the capital, Damascus, and the reported opposition capture of a government regimental command centre in Aleppo province, which relied heavily on fighters from the Jabhat al-Nusra, a jihadist group with al-Qaida tiesthat has been excluded from a western- and Arab-backed opposition coalition.
Meanwhile, despite US and allied warnings that the regime appeared to taking preparatory steps towards the use of chemical weapons, a senior Israeli official said he believed there was no immediate chemical threat from Syria.
“On these matters, we have to be prepared to protect ourselves, by ourselves,” vice prime minister Moshe Yaalon told Israel Radio. He added: “At this time, we see no sign that this weaponry is being pointed at us”.
The Geneva meetings follow talks between the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Istanbul last Monday. The talks did not lead to any public breakthrough, but Turkish officials said the Russians were privately admitting that Assad, whom Moscow has backed and armed throughout his 12-year rule, was unlikely to survive in power for long.
Lavrov accused American officials of spreading rumours that Russia was softening its stance on Syria.
“US representatives started to make statements hinting that Russia is changing its position. This is not true. We have not changed our position, and only on these conditions we agreed to hold the Geneva meeting,” the Russian foreign minister said.
“We said we would be ready under one condition: that the basis of such brainstorming sessions will be formed by the Geneva document, without any additions, without any ultimatums, without any preconditions like President Assad’s resignation.”
Lavrov was referring to a joint statement agreed to by global powers in Geneva in June, in which the deep differences between them were papered over by an ambiguous use of words. It said any future Syrian transition government “could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent”.
The US and its allies interpreted this to mean a government without Assad, as he would not have the consent of the bulk of the opposition. Russia and China took it to mean Assad could not be ousted without the agreement of the regime.