Russian official opens door to Assad's exit, says Syrian people should decide

Story highlights

  • Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met last month with Russia's leader, considered his chief sponsor
  • Despite such links, a Russian spokeswoman says, "We are not saying that Assad must go or stay"
  • Syria is embroiled in a bloody, years-long war; off-and-on talks are underway to peacefully resolve it

(CNN)Russian officials have been embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's most emphatic international backers.

But that doesn't mean they're insisting he remain in power.
    Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Tuesday that the Syrian people should decide who their president is, whoever that may be, according to state-run Sputnik news.
    "We are not saying that Assad must go or stay," she said.
    The comments come more than four years into Syria's messy, bloody civil war, which has killed more than 250,000 people, displaced some 7.6 million within the country and spurred over 4 million to escape to others, U.N. humanitarian affairs chief Stephen O'Brien said late this summer.
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    And, tellingly, they come days after the temporary halt of peace talks in Vienna, Austria, that featured representatives from at least 18 interested parties. Senior American and Arab diplomats said the United States wants a road map for Assad to leave office. Under such a plan, he would hand over power to a transitional government before elections are held.
    However, those involved in the discussions have different ideas on how rapidly -- and even whether -- Assad should leave power. It's one of many sticking points in an already complicated conflagration, one that has only worsened despite repeated diplomatic attempts to help resolve it.
    Assad met last month in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom many consider his chief sponsor. Both sides framed the talks as part of the coordination to fight terrorism -- a label that Syria often applies to its enemies.
    "The Syrian people have been practically alone in putting up resistance and fighting these international terrorists for several years now," Putin said then.
    Despite such outward support, Zakharova said that her country has never made keeping Assad in place a condition for any talks.
    "Absolutely not," the government spokeswoman said. "We have never said that."
    Zakharova brought the focus back to terrorism, saying that diplomats involved in the Syria talks -- who are expected to meet again within two weeks -- need to agree on a list of terrorist organizations. ISIS is the most renowned and reviled such organization, though there are questions about who else should be included on such a list.
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    "A decision was made that our experts on terrorism should hold relevant consultations to (reach an agreement) on this issue," she said.
    It's not clear what to make of the Russian government spokeswoman's statements on Assad, including whether they might spur a breakthrough.
    Last week, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that Putin, who has ordered his military to take a ramped-up role in Syria, is "winging this," rather than carefully crafting a comprehensive strategy.
    "I personally question whether he has some long-term strategy or whether he is being very opportunistic on a day-to-day basis," Clapper told CNN's Jim Sciutto. "And I think his intervention into Syria is another manifestation of that."