Bashar al-Assad, the current Syrian president and the root cause of the Syrian crisis, said he has never faced pressure from Russia to step aside, as US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Moscow seeking to revive stalled peace efforts.
Speaking to NBC News in Damascus, Assad insisted his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had never raised the issue of his departure or a political transition.
“Only the Syrian people define who’s going to be the president, when to come, and when to go. They never said a single word regarding this,” he said.
Assad’s fate is a key question in efforts to bring about a negotiated settlement to Syria’s five-year civil war.
Hopes for the existing peace process rest on the UN-backed blueprint sketched out by the 22-nation, US and Russian-led International Syria Support Group.
Under this plan, signed by both Syria’s ally Iran and Assad’s pro-rebel foe Saudi Arabia, a nationwide ceasefire will precede Geneva-based talks on “political transition”.
But there has been little progress towards a resumption of talks that had been expected to take place this month.
And the prospects for a political transition beginning by August, as laid out in the plan, now appear slim.
Kerry arrived later on Thursday in Moscow, a close ally of Assad’s government that launched air strikes in support of regime forces last September.
He met with Putin at the Kremlin and both said before the meeting they hoped they could make progress on Syria. Kerry was also to meet Lavrov on Friday.
“I hope after today’s consultations you’ll be able to advise [US President Obama] of the progress made and possible headway for us to make,” Putin told Kerry, according to a pool reporter at the start of the talks.
For his part, Kerry told Putin: “Hopefully we’ll be able to make some genuine progress that is measurable and implementable and that can make a difference in the course of events in Syria.
The Washington Post reported on Thursday that Washington was to offer to cooperate with Russia in joint military action against the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, al-Nusra Front.
In Paris before heading to Moscow, Kerry did not deny the report, but refused to discuss the proposal in detail.
“The suggestion is that there’s going to be a plan on the table for the US and Russia to get together with air strikes. According to the leak, the detail suggests there will be active cooperation with flights and all attacks, and a ‘joint implementation group’ – as it has been described in the document,” said Al Jazeera’s Andrew Simmons, reporting from Moscow.
Sergey Karagonov, a former adviser to the Russian president, told Al Jazeera: “The problem is that he [Kerry] represents a lame duck. The general mood in the US is very negative towards Russia, towards cooperation.”
He added that while Lavrov and Kerry did not want to “exacerbate things together … it does not look like the problem will be solved easily”.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Thursday that while there was “some speculation that an agreement may be reached”, it was “not clear that that will happen”.
“At present, the United States is not conducting or coordinating military operations with Russia,” he said.
Assad regime actions in Syria turned what was a peaceful uprising in Syria to a crisis that resulted in killing more than 450.000 Syrians and displacing more than 12 million out of their homes.