Russian President Vladimir Putin met Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince Sunday about the possibility of a political solution and cooperation in Syria, where Moscow has been conducting airstrikes since late September.
Putin’s meeting with Riyadh’s defense minister, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, son of the Saudi king and leading figure in its regional security policy, was the Kremlin’s boldest move to reach out to Assad’s foes since launching the strikes.
Speaking after the meeting between Putin and Salman, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said both countries were willing to cooperate and wanted to prevent the formation of a “terrorist caliphate.”
“On both sides, as far as I can tell, there is an understanding that today’s meeting can advance our cooperation,” Lavrov said. “After today’s talks, we understand better how to move toward a political solution.”
Russia’s intervention in Syria has infuriated Assad’s regional foes, including Saudi Arabia, who say Russian airstrikes have been hitting rebel groups opposed to Assad, and not just ISIS fighters that Moscow says it is targeting.
Lavrov acknowledged that Saudi Arabia had “concerns” about Russia’s aims but said it was targeting only extremists, including ISIS and Nusra Front, the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.
The Russian airstrikes derailed a tentative detente between the two countries earlier this year, which aimed to smooth tensions over Syria and relations with Riyadh’s regional rival Iran.
Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said Saudi Arabia, which along with other Arab states has joined a US-led coalition bombing ISIS in Syria and Iraq, was still demanding Assad’s removal from power. He hoped talks with Russia would continue.
“We expressed our concerns that these operations could be regarded as an alliance between Iran and Russia,” Jubeir said. “But in the conversation, our Russian friends explained to us that the main aim is the fight with ISIS and terrorism.”
Jubeir also reiterated that the 2012 road map should be the guiding principle for any talks.
Putin also met Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who holds a senior post in the armed forces of the United Arab Emirates, another rich Gulf state hostile to Assad.
“I welcome the opportunity to talk about ... the situation in the region, particularly in light of recent terrorist acts in Turkey,” Putin told Prince Mohammad on the sidelines of the Russian Grand Prix in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Elsewhere, Syria’s key opposition National Coalition said it would boycott talks proposed by UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura over concerns about his plan and Russia’s airstrikes in the country.
The National Coalition has “decided not to participate in the consultative working groups and considers adherence to the Geneva communique and [UN] Security Council resolutions and an end to Russian aggression to be the basis for the resumption of the negotiation process,” it said in a statement.
The Geneva communique is a document agreed at a peace conference in 2012 that drew up baselines for a Syria peace deal including the formation of a transitional governing body with executive powers.
The opposition says Assad cannot stay on during any transition period, but the regime says his departure is not on the table.
De Mistura in July proposed the formation of working groups composed of opposition and government representatives to discuss issues including protecting civilians and reconstruction.
But the discussions have yet to get off the ground, and the opposition has been disappointed by the consultative nature of the proposal, saying the talks fall short of proper negotiations. The Coalition voted to boycott the talks after several days of meetings in Turkey, where it is based.
It slammed the Russian air campaign launched on Sept. 30 saying it was incompatible with Moscow’s Security Council membership and role as a party to peace talks in Syria.
“Russia’s aggression represents a violation of international law and support for the regime in killing civilians, committing war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity,” the Coalition said. The air campaign “undermines the chances of success of any political settlement.”
The Coalition also criticized de Mistura’s plan, saying the formation of a national governing body was being “sidelined” in his proposed working groups.
Coalition member Hisham Marwa told AFP that the Russian strikes were the main reason the body had voted to boycott the UN talks. “The Syrian people are not in the mood to start such consultations, they need the bombing to stop.”
“We need a serious reaction from the international community with respect to what Russia is doing in Syria,” he added. “People could not accept to go and sit with the regime while the regime and its allies are bombing civilians every day.”
Marwa also criticized the proposed peace and said the National Coalition felt any talks should begin with the formation of a transitional governing body.
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