Russia has once again derailed peace talks in Syria by insisting that President Bashar Assad should not step down before negotiations begin.
Intransigence by Russia on Assad’s departure has continuously thwarted efforts at the United Nations to deal with the bloody civil war. UN peace envoy Brahimi has intensified efforts to find a formula that would bring the two sides together but as long as the opposition insists that Assad must leave before talks begin and Russia rejects that requirement, no progress can be made to resolve the crisis and stop the bloodshed.
A Russian Foreign Ministry statement following talks on Friday with the United States and Brahimi reiterated calls for an end to violence in Syria, but there was no sign of a breakthrough.
Brahimi said the issue of Assad, whom the United States, European powers and Gulf-led Arab states insist must step down to end the civil war, appeared to be a sticking point at the meeting in Geneva.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said: “As before, we firmly uphold the thesis that questions about Syria’s future must be decided by the Syrians themselves, without interference from outside or the imposition of prepared recipes for development.”
Russia has been Assad’s most powerful international backer, joining with China to block three Western- and Arab-backed U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed to pressure him or push him from power. Assad can also rely on regional powerhouse Iran.
In Geneva, Russia called for “a political transition process” based on an agreement by foreign powers last June.
Brahimi, who is trying to build on the agreement reached in Geneva on June 30, has met three times with senior Russian and U.S. diplomats since early December and met Assad in Damascus.
Russia and the United States disagreed over what the June agreement meant for Assad, with Washington saying it sent a clear signal he must go and Russia contending it did not.
Moscow has been reluctant to endorse the “Arab Spring” popular revolts of the last two years, saying they have increased instability in the Middle East and created a risk of radical Islamists seizing power.
Although Russia sells arms to Syria and rents one of its naval bases, the economic benefit of its support for Assad is minimal. Analysts say President Vladimir Putin wants to prevent the United States from using military force or support from the U.N. Security Council to bring down governments it opposes.
However, as rebels gain ground in the war, Russia has given indications it is preparing for Assad’s possible exit, while continuing to insist he must not be forced out by foreign powers
Meanwhile, fighting continued around Damascus as a week long respite from bombings because of bad weather ended. With more than a million internal refugees — many without any food or shelter — the onset of winter has complicated the humanitarian situation. President Assad still refuses to allow most international aid organizations access to the interior of the country, and many observers are predicting a humanitarian calamity unless aid reaches tens of thousands of the most desperate Syrians soon.