Russia tells US it will continue backing Assad
Russian diplomats told a top visiting US dignitary on Friday that Moscow would continue backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's campaign against rebel forces despite peace talks due later this month.
US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman's visit came ahead of a crunch meeting in Paris on Monday between her boss John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that will focus on Moscow's push to give Syrian ally Iran a formal seat at the so-called Geneva 2 conference.
Russian officials said Lavrov and Kerry would also hold a joint meeting in Paris on Monday with UN-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.
Sherman did not address reporters after her meeting with Russian Deputy Foreign Ministers Mikhail Bogdanov and Gennady Gatilov. The two diplomats will represent Moscow at the Syria negotiations that are scheduled to begin on January 22 in Switzerland.
But the Russian foreign ministry said Sherman was told that Assad's campaign against "terrorist groups" deserved comprehensive support.
"The Russian representatives stressed the importance of uniting efforts by the Syrian government and the patriotically-inclined opposition to fight terrorist groups whose activities are threatening not only the future of Syria, but also regional stability," the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.
Moscow uses the phrase "patriotically-inclined opposition" to refer to Syrian groups that are not part of Assad's ruling Baath party but which are sanctioned by the regime and do not include the opposition National Coalition umbrella body or rebels fighting on the ground.
The Russian statement said Moscow and Washington agreed that the Geneva 2 conference -- a follow-up to July 2012 consultations that failed to put an end to the fighting -- must focus on engaging regime and opposition members in their first direct contact.
"The forum must give the start to direct Syrian talks based on the Geneva communique, whose frameworks call on the Syrians themselves to decide the issue of how their future government works," the Russian statement said.
The first Geneva meeting -- involving world powers but no Syrian regime or rebel officials -- concluded with an agreement that Assad and his opponents should decide on a transitional government whose representatives suited all sides.
US officials interpreted the wording to mean that the deal excluded the possibility of Assad remaining in power.
But Russia -- its ties to Syria stretching back decades and involving weapons sales worth billions of dollars a year -- insists that Assad cannot be forced to step down through outside pressure because he retains strong domestic support.
No decision on Iran
Russia has been one of the principal backers of Iran's inclusion in the Syria peace negotiations because of its sway over Assad's regime -- a positioned backed by Germany but opposed most vocally by France and the United States.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said he told Russia's Vladimir Putin in a telephone conversation on Thursday that the peace conference would fail without Tehran's involvement.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon did not include Iran in his invitations to 30 countries to the gathering.
And the Islamic republic had earlier brushed aside a US suggestion that it play a "sideline" role at the negotiations as insulting.
Russian diplomats said no conclusive decision was reached on Iran's role in Switzerland during Sherman's visit.
"This issue was pushed back until the meeting between Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris," Interfax quoted Gatilov as saying.
Moscow said Lavrov would further hold rare consultations with National Coalition chief Ahmad Jarba in Paris on either Sunday or Monday.