Russia: Syria rebels obsession with Assad blocks peace

MOSCOW Wed Jan 23, 2013 5:49pm IST

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's foes are bent on overthrowing his government and called their "obsession" with this goal an insurmountable obstacle to peace.

Lavrov's comments at an annual news conference signalled no shift in the stance of Russia, which says Assad's exit from power must not be a precondition for a deal to end 22 months of violence in which more than 60,000 people have been killed.

"Everything runs up against opposition members' obsession with the idea of the overthrow of the Assad regime. As long as this irreconcilable position remains in force, nothing good will happen - armed action will continue, people will die," he said.

Russia has vetoed three U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed pressuring Assad to end the bloodshed, which began with a crackdown on protests in March 2011 and later escalated into civil war.

Lavrov also accused Western and Arab states that have recognised the opposition Syrian National Coalition of undermining chances for a peaceful solution to the conflict by granting too much support to the rebels.

"Opposition activists continue to categorically reject dialogue, have opted for military conflict and our partners... are encouraging them in that and support them with everything needed to prolong that fight," he said.

Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister since 2004 and the face of its policy on the Syrian conflict, said Moscow's main goal in Syria was to stop the bloodshed as soon as possible.

"But apparently other colleagues have other priorities," he said. "We often talk to them about that, they seem to understand it all, and the threat accompanying the prospect of the breakup of the Syrian state."

"But when they speak in public they say somewhat different things, differing from what they tell us privately," he said without elaborating.

NO NEED TO EVACUATE

Lavrov said the situation in Syria was "causing utmost concern" but that it did not warrant a mass evacuation of Russian citizens living there.

Russia flew 77 of its citizens fleeing the violence to Moscow early on Wednesday after they were bussed to Lebanon, but Lavrov said it was not the start of a broader evacuation.

"We have plans (in place), as we have plans for any country, in case of an escalation of the internal situation ... But there is no talk of implementing them," Lavrov said.

Russia is a long-time arms supplier for Assad's government, though President Vladimir Putin has said it is not providing weapons that could be used in the conflict. Russia maintains a modest naval facility in the port of Tartous that is its only military base outside the former Soviet Union.

Russia is currently holding what it says are its biggest naval exercises in decades in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, not far from Syria, a show of force that Lavrov said was a positive factor.

"Of course we have no interest in the Mediterranean region becoming even more destabilised, and the presence of our fleet there is undoubtedly a stabilising factor," he said.

(Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Steve Gutterman and Jon Boyle)

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