Russian diplomat says Assad willing to step down in 'civilized way'
PARIS -- Syrian President Bashar Assad is ready to step down but only in a "civilized" manner, Russia's ambassador to France said Friday.
Alexandre Orlov, whose country is a traditional ally of Syria and the Assad clan, told French radio station RFI: "I believe it is difficult for him to remain after everything that has happened ... and in some way he has accepted this."
The ambassador noted that Assad had shown a readiness to negotiate with the opposition following an international summit held in Switzerland last month. During those talks, overseen by United Nations peace envoy Kofi Annan and attended by Russia and China, it was agreed that a "transitional government" should be set up in Damascus made up of representatives from both the government and the opposition.
"There was a communication that looked ahead to a transition to a more democratic regime. This communication was accepted by Bashar Assad," Orlov said. "That's to say he accepts he has to go -- but to go in a civilized way."
Immediately after Orlov's radio interview, Syrian state television denied that Assad was ready to step down, describing the Russian ambassador's declarations as "totally without foundation."
Orlov denied that Moscow had vested interests in Syria and criticized the approach by Western nations toward the Syrian conflict.
He said the Syrian conflict was one between "two branches of Islam" and said he was concerned that the Arab Spring revolutions had led to the spread of radical Islam.
"Our Western friends have taken sides in this battle," he said, adding that Moscow feared a "spread of the hard branch of Islam in the world."
Russia argues that the fate of Assad must be decided by the Syrian people without outside interference.
"There can only be a political solution to this conflict," Orlov told RFI.
-- Kim Willsher
Photo: Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, meets with Fahd Jassem Freij, Syria's new defense minister, on Thursday. Credit: Associated Press / Syrian Arab News Agency