Syrian opposition says ‘Russia’s stance with Assad to shift’

Syria’s main opposition participated in a high-level meeting with Russia whose policies regarding Assad could lead to a potential priority shift

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

President of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) Khaled Khoja talks to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov before a meeting in Moscow, Russia, August 13, 2015.

Russia isn't committed to keep backing Syrian President Bashar Assad to stay in power, the head of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) said on Friday after high-level talks were held in Moscow on Thursday.

Khaled Khoja, chief of the SNC, stated that "the Russian leadership isn't clinging to Bashar Assad" but rather is aiming to preserve Syria's territorial integrity.

The meeting did not clarify whether Khoja’s statements signaled a shift in Russia’s Syrian policies, or merely showed an attempt by Moscow to rally Syrian opposition support as a new push to aid in bringing peace to the nation.

The opposition reiterated its commitment to battle the violence of the militant group ISIS and work towards a transitional government for the country who has been facing an ongoing crisis for the past four years.

“We are the first to fight terrorism, we have done it and we continue doing it because our positions should become closer in a comprehensive way to fight terrorism and achieve stability in the country," Khoja was quoted by Interfax news agency following the meeting.

Khoja added that the opposition "fully agrees that it is necessary to preserve Syrian statehood and state institutions in the country." Nevertheless, the Syrian opposition and Russia are still in disagreement on who should be in charge of maintaining that statehood.

Moscow’s Syrian policies have traditionally rejected any international solution to the ongoing crisis that does not include Syrian President Bashar Assad, while the opposition, along with the Saudi government, have continuously called for a negotiated political solution that does not include Assad.

Nonetheless, the mere presence of the Syrian opposition in Moscow after declining to attend many similar meetings shows a promising sign of progress from both sides.

Russia along with US, Europe and Middle Eastern countries is keen to see the defeat of ISIS militant group that seeks to destabilize their region. That desire could be outweighing President Vladimir Putin's current loyalty to Assad.

Kathryn Stoner, a specialist on Russia at Stanford University, said “Putin may have realized that supporting Assad, whose regime appears to be weakening, is no longer in his interest.”

"Assad is useful as long as he can provide something. It's not clear what he's providing right now," Stoner said."He can't really buy big arms programs the Russians want to sell and he's providing a lot of instability and unrest they don't want to spread. It could be that they are beginning to see some value in backing away from him if the Americans will come along to negotiate something."

US Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Kuala Lumpur last week, while Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Ahmed al-Jubeir visited Moscow on Tuesday to discuss working together on a political solution for Syria.

The meetings attained no concrete agreement on a solution, with Russian officials publicly stating that their support of Assad will continue strongly and Jubeir reiterating that Assad cannot be part of Syria’s solution.

A further discussion about Syria was conducted by Kerry and Lavrov in a phone call on Thursday, in which they both agreed that further exploration of options for a political solution will continue, according to the State Department spokesman, John Kirby, who added that the department was negotiating what roles the opposition groups would have into reaching such a political solution.

The diplomatic negotiations regarding the Syrian crisis have intensified after the UN Security Council unanimously approved to begin an inquiry that could investigate the identity of the group behind the continuous use of chemical weapons in assaults on unarmed Syrian civilians, including women and children.

Russia, as one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, has played a key role in the September 2013 decision to remove chemical weapons materials from Syria, which helped US President Barack Obama avoid taking military action on Syrian ground which was being disputed at the time.

Even with the disposal of chemical agents from Syria, the international community has failed at attaining peace in the country.

Recently reached Iran nuclear deal brought both the West and Russia on the same page to achieve a common goal, which has raised hopes that the same kind of international cooperation could be brought to solve the Syrian conflict that has killed more than 300,000 people and allowed for the ISIS insurgency to spread its influence across the nation.

Recently, a joint plan by Turkey and the US to create a de facto “safe” zone in northern Syria emerged after both countries agreed to increase cooperation against ISIS, prioritizing the insurgency over the removal of the Assad regime.

TRTWorld and agencies