Russian foreign minister tells West "don't isolate Assad"

By Daren Butler

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - In an implicit warning to international supporters of Syrian opposition forces, Russia's foreign minister said on Wednesday that efforts to isolate one side in the conflict would wreck the chances of a negotiated solution.

Sergei Lavrov said the Friends of Syria group, which is meeting in Istanbul this weekend, had so far had a negative influence on implementing a 2012 accord among world powers aimed at resolving the war through talks with all sides.

Friends of Syria links the United States, European powers, Turkey and Gulf Arab states who support the opposition and have demanded that President Bashar al-Assad surrender power.

Russia, which along with Iran is Assad's main backer, says Assad must be part of any negotiated settlement. The 2012 Geneva accord left open the question of his exact fate.

Lavrov said that getting rid of the Assad government as a precondition for dialogue among Syrians was unrealistic to end a conflict which has killed more than 70,000 people.

"If a mechanism is created that isolates one side in the conflict or is aimed at isolating one side in the conflict, then we simply lose the opportunity for dialogue and a search for paths to a resolution," he said at a news conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

He hoped the weekend meeting would be "pragmatic" and help to set up a dialogue between the different parties.

"Some key participants have assured me that they will seek a way to try to get a dialogue started. I very much hope that this is done and, second, that it is successful," he said.


Since the Friends of Syria meeting in Geneva in July 2012, the war in Syria has grown worse. Last month was the bloodiest so far in terms of casualties.

British Foreign Minister William Hague said at a G8 foreign ministers' meeting in London last week that the world had failed Syria and the situation was reaching catastrophic proportions.

Western powers want to see the end of the Assad family's 43-year rule but are loathe to intervene militarily. However, their stand has been complicated by the growing prominence in rebel ranks of Islamist fighters such as the Nusra Front, who have sworn allegiance to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri.

Moscow last week also expressed concern with al Qaeda's role, calling them "international terrorists" who wanted to turn Syria into their main springboard in the Middle East.

The conflict pits the Sunni Muslim majority against Assad's supporters, largely from his Alawite community, and has drawn in Sunni and Shi'ite militants from elsewhere in the Middle East. The Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

U.N. Security Council member Russia has blocked efforts to impose sanctions on Assad's government, vetoing three U.N. resolutions condemning his crackdown on opposition groups.

It also opposes arming the rebels.

The Istanbul meeting will discuss how to pressure Assad into accepting a negotiated settlement, according to diplomats.

In February, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said in Moscow the Assad government was ready for talks with the rebels. But fighting has intensified and rebels have made gains, including pressing on the capital Damascus.

Representatives of Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, the United States, Britain, Germany, Italy and France, will meet in Istanbul.

(Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman in Istanbul; Editing by Angus MacSwan)