Russia is continuing to set the pace of international efforts to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis and fight Islamic State more effectively in the wake of the Paris killings by urging an end to calls that Bashar al-Assad should step down.
Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minster, warned on Wednesday that it was unacceptable to insist on the president’s departure, as Syrian rebels of all hues and their western and Arab supporters have been demanding. This central and polarising issue was sidestepped on Saturday during talks in Vienna which set out a timetable for peace talks and ceasefire.
“It seems to me there are no longer any doubts that it is simply unacceptable to put forward any pre-conditions for joining forces in the fight against terror,” Lavrov told reporters after meeting his Lebanese counterpart, Gebran Bassil, in Moscow. He said he had detected a change in the west’s position since the Paris atrocities and the Isis bombing of a Russian passenger plane over Egypt on 31 October.
In recent weeks, the US, Britain and the other countries that had previously insisted on Assad’s immediate departure have been signalling he could stay on for a transition period of a few months but would eventually have to go. The Russians have seized on this as evidence that the debate about Syria is going their way.
The shifting mood was also caught by Assad himself, who said in an interview with a French magazine that Syria would only share intelligence on terrorists with France if it changes its policies in the region. Syrian officials have been making this argument to European countries for the last couple of years, but it is now being listened to as calls multiply to work with Assad as the “lesser evil” to Isis.
“If the French government is not serious in its fight against terrorism, we will not waste our time collaborating with a country, government or an institution that supports terrorism,” the Syrian president told the magazine Valeurs Actuelles on Saturday. “You have to first change policy … to be part of an alliance that joins countries only fighting terrorism and not supporting them.”
Illustrating the trend, the Spanish foreign minister, Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, called for an agreement with Assad “to begin a ceasefire allowing aid to reach the displaced … kickstart a political transition and above all attack our common enemy”.
Speaking to TVE television, he said: “We have to replace the ‘Bashar yes or Bashar no’ discourse by one of peace or war. If you want peace, you are going to have get along with Assad at least on a temporary basis. “[Former US president Franklin D Roosevelt] was forced to come to an agreement with Stalin to finish with the Nazis, as it was a lesser evil at the time.”
Assad defines all those fighting to overthrow him as terrorist, a position shared by Russia and his other close ally Iran. At Saturday’s Vienna talks Iran blocked efforts by the US and other countries to bar Assad from running for re-election if he steps down as part of a political transition in Damascus.
The 19 participating countries – including Iran’s bitter rival Saudi Arabia – signed a UN statement supporting a 1 January deadline for the start of talks between Assad and the rebels, with the aim of agreeing a ceasefire by 14 May 2016 and holding free elections a year later. No Syrians were invited to take part in the event so that the international parties could present a unified message.
Assad repeated in his interview that he had always said he was ready to be part of an international coalition against terrorism and that it was up to Syrians to decide their future through the ballot box.
Syrian opposition groups insist he can play no part in the future of a country that has been devastated by the deaths of up to 300,000 people and the flight of 11 million since the bloodiest crisis of the Arab spring erupted in March 2011.