MOSCOW (AP) — Russian and U.S. diplomats are meeting Sunday with U.N. peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi for more talks on the civil war in Syria, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, adding that the Americans were wrong to see Moscow as softening its position.
Russia agreed to take part in the talks in Geneva, he said, on the condition there would be no demand for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down.
"We are not conducting any negotiations on the fate of Assad," Mr. Lavrov said Sunday. "All attempts to portray things differently are unscrupulous, even for diplomats of those countries which are known to try to distort the facts in their favor."
Mr. Lavrov met last week with Mr. Brahimi and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Dublin. Afterward, Mrs. Clinton said the United States and Russia were committed to trying again to get both sides in the Syrian conflict to talk about a political transition. Mr. Clinton stressed that the U.S. would continue to insist that Mr. Assad's departure be a key part of that transition.
Russia and the United States have argued bitterly over how to address the conflict, which began with peaceful protests against Mr. Assad in March 2011 and escalated into a civil war that has killed an estimated 40,000 people. The U.S. has criticized Russia for shielding its closest ally in the Middle East, while Moscow has accused Washington of encouraging the rebels and being intent on regime change.
Russia's foreign minister said Sunday that after he agreed to a U.S. proposal to have his and Mrs. Clinton's deputies "brainstorm" on Syria, the Americans began to suggest that Russia was softening its position.
"No such thing," Mr. Lavrov said. "We have not changed our position."
He urged the international community to come together and "with one voice" to demand a cease-fire, return U.N. observers in bigger numbers and begin a political dialogue. Mr. Lavrov repeated that Russia was not wedded to Mr. Assad but believed that only the Syrians have the right to choose their leaders.
Germany weighed in Sunday on the future of Mr. Assad's regime, with Federal Intelligence Service chief Gerhard Schindler saying it would not survive, although it was impossible to say how long it would hang on.
"Signs are increasing that the regime in Damascus is in its final phase," he was quoted as telling the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.
Mr. Assad's regime appears increasingly embattled, with rebels making gains in northern Syria and near Damascus, the capital.
Addressing fears that Mr. Assad could use chemical weapons in a last-ditch effort to save his regime, Mr. Lavrov once again said the Syrian government has given assurances that it has no intention of ever using the weapons of mass destruction. He said the greatest threat is that they would fall into the hands of militants.
Mr. Lavrov said Russia takes seriously any rumor about Syria's chemical weapons and immediately clarifies the situation with the Syrian government, passing on any information to the Americans.
Geir Moulson contributed to this article from Berlin.