Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, right, welcomes his Egyptian… (Associated Press )
MOSCOW -- Russia is ready to meet with leaders of the opposition group seeking to overthrow Moscow's ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, a high Russian official confirmed Friday.
"We expressed readiness to meet with [the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces] head A. M. al Khatib and are still inclined to do it,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during a news conference in Moscow after meeting with his Egyptian counterpart, Mohamed Kamel Amr. “We understand that they don’t have objections to the proposal to meet.”
Russia has long been one of Assad's staunchest supporters, along with Iran. However, in recent weeks Russian officials have signaled an increased openness to the possibility that his regime may not survive.
Lavrov spoke a day after he met with Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad and on the eve of his meeting Saturday with U.N. peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.
Lavrov said that during the meeting with Mekdad, the Russians “actively compelled, something we have been doing in recent months, Syrian leadership to make fully concrete its declared readiness for dialog with the opposition.”
At the same time Lavrov rejected the idea that Assad should quit as a precondition for peace talks.
“With all respect for the world community, this should be decided by the Syrian people,” Lavrov said. “The world community shouldn’t incite either side toward the continuation of the bloodshed and shouldn’t come forth with any preconditions."
[Updated 9:25 a.m. Dec. 28: Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based pro-opposition group, reported that several rebel factions had taken control of the Al Tanak oilfield in eastern Dair Alzour province.
In Idlib province near Turkey, the Syrian air force bombarded the village of Maarushurin and the nearby Waid Dayf military barracks, killing at least two rebels, according to the group. The area has been contested as rebels and security forces vie for control of vast territories.
In the Damascus suburbs of Douma, Shaba, Darayya, Irbeen and Harasta, the army and rebels continued fighting, according to the group. Syria forces shelled rebel positions with mortars and artillery, with one rebel fighter killed in Irbeen and a child slain in Douma, the group said.
Brahimi flew to Dubai, United Arab Emirates on Friday, according to the Associated Press, after spending the past week in Syria pushing a plan for a transitional government to end the 21-month conflict.]
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Ned Parker in Beirut contributed.