Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said the United States did not ask Moscow to facilitate contacts with the Assad government in Damascus regarding air strikes against the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria.
In an interview with Russia's RIA Novosti news agency on December 9, Lavrov said that Russia was "constantly urging [the United States] not to ignore the Syrian authorities in the fight against [IS], but in Washington they stubbornly continue to repeat that there is a 'fundamental impossibility' for the U.S. to even indirectly go for a 'legitimization' of the Bashar Assad government."
Moscow, Bashar al-Assad's strongest ally, has vehemently opposed the U.S.-led coalition's air strikes against IS and other Islamist factions in Syria, insisting that the United States and its allies should request permission from Syrian President Assad. Such a move would, of course, effectively legitimize the Assad government. However, the United States has refused to deal with Assad, saying that he must step down from power.
In his December 9 interview, Lavrov accused Washington of "demonizing" Assad. The United States is "reserving for itself the right to use force in any place, at any time, unilaterally," he added.
The Russian foreign minister added that he did not think there was any need for Moscow to mediate between Damascus and Washington, noting that "in the period of the sharp escalation of the situation in Syria in August 2013, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem directly. There are other possibilities for direct contact."
Lavrov was referring to the August 2013 chemical-weapons attacks in the Damascus suburbs. While Russia (and of course the Assad government) claimed that the Syrian armed opposition likely carried out the attacks, the United States and its Western allies said that Assad was responsible.
Damascus has -- unsurprisingly -- taken the same line as its ally Moscow over the U.S.-led coalition against IS militants in Syria. In many ways, Lavrov's RIA Novosti interview can be read as the latest move in an intensifying diplomatic offensive by Moscow to gain ground for its strategy on Syria.
On December 3, Assad played his role in that diplomatic offensive, giving an interview to French magazine "Paris Match." In that interview, he insisted that the U.S.-led coalition against IS was "an illegal intervention, first because it is not authorized by a Security Council resolution, and second because it did not respect the sovereignty of a state."
Assad also said that air strikes by the U.S.-led coalition against IS were "merely cosmetic."
"Terrorism cannot be destroyed from the air, and you cannot achieve results on the ground without land forces who know the geographical details of the regions and move in tandem with the air strikes. That's why, and after two months of the alliance's air strikes, there are no tangible results on the ground in that direction," Assad told "Paris Match."
Assad's "Paris Match" interview came hot on the heels of comments made by Syrian Foreign Minister Muallem to the Beirut-based Al-Mayadeen TV. Muallem said that U.S.-led strikes against Islamic State in Syria had failed to weaken the extremist group.
The ultimate goal of Moscow and Damascus is renewed peace talks on Syria.
Muallem met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi on November 26, as part of Moscow's renewed diplomatic push to restart the stalled peace talks on Syria. A senior Syrian official said prior to that meeting that Muallem and Putin would discuss the "relaunch of negotiations."
The last round of talks in Switzerland in February broke down over the issue of Assad's future role.
Lavrov has also backed calls by the UN's special envoy on Syria, Staffan de Mistura, for a "freeze zone" in Aleppo, whereby fighting would cease so that humanitarian aid could be delivered to civilians.
Damascus and Moscow put forward a proposal for a cease-fire plan in Aleppo in January, ahead of the peace talks, when Syria asked Lavrov to "make necessary arrangements to guarantee its implementation and specify the zero hour for military operations to cease." Damascus claimed that the proposal, which was never implemented, was a direct response to a suggestion by U.S. Secretary of State Kerry for a localized cease-fire in Aleppo.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk