Russia plays down pressure on Assad

Russia urged world powers on Thursday to let Syrians decide their own future as it prepared for talks on the 22-month crisis with Washington's point man and the international peace envoy.

A firm statement from Moscow said all talk—particularly that coming from Washington—on ways to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power was misguided because the ultimate choice rested with Syrians.

"Only the Syrians themselves can agree on the model of their country's future development," said the Moscow statement.

"Russia's position remains unchanged," it added while urging "all foreign players to redouble their attempts to create conditions conducive for the start of dialogue."

The comments were issued as Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov went into a closed meeting with his Turkish counterpart Feridun Sinirlioglu.

Russia's top Middle East expert will then travel to Geneva for talks Friday with UN-Arab League representative Lakhdar Brahimi and US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns.

Moscow is lobbying for a new peace initiative by Brahimi based loosely on a pact agreed June 30 by world powers and calling for a transition government.

The plan was never deployed because of the fighting and an inability to agree on Assad's role—if any—in the new team.

Yet Moscow has also outraged both the Arab world and the West by refusing to join public calls on him to step down.

Syria remains Moscow's last big Middle East ally and has seen its leadership bolstered by Russia's veto of several United Nations attempts to sanction Assad for his bloody crackdown.

But Bogdanov recently told a conference that he felt Assad's days were numbered and that Moscow should be positioning itself for the eventuality of a mixed new opposition team coming to power.

These realities have revived dimming hopes for a diplomatic solution to a conflict that UN estimates say has claimed more than 60,000 lives.

Friday's meeting in Geneva will be the second time the three sides exchanged views in a month.

But US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said a heavy load of questions needed to be answered before sides could begin talking of progress toward peace.

"Can you actually get the regime to be willing to move forward, to get out of the way, whatever it takes?" Nuland asked on Wednesday.

Only the Syrians themselves can agree on the model of their country's future.