MOSCOW — A Kremlin Mideast envoy told a visiting Syrian opposition delegation on Tuesday that Russia sees no other friend in Syria than its people, saying “leaders come and go.”
Mikhail Margelov’s comments signal a possible softening of Russia’s position toward opposition activists and their protests in Syria, which for three months have been trying to break President Bashar Assad’s iron grip on power.
Last week Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov urged Assad’s opponents to have patience and enter negotiations. Margelov agreed on the need for dialogue but noted that “for us in Russia, it is absolutely clear: In the Syrian Arab Republic there is no other friend than the Syrian people.”
“Leaders come and go, politicians come and go, social systems come and go, but for Russia there remains a single reliable and trusted friend: the Syrian people.”
Margelov, who recently also has visited Libya as a go-between for Moamar Gadhafi and the rebels, pressed for the democratic reforms announced by the Syrian government to materialize, and for every political creed to be consulted along the way.
“For us political dialogue is important, political processes are important, as is the soonest possible ceasing of any and all forms of violence,” Margelov said.
The opposition says some 1,400 people have been killed — most of them unarmed protesters — during the government crackdown on three months of street protests.
The Syrian delegation, led by Radwan Ziadeh, a prominent Syrian exile and a visiting scholar at the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, seemed satisfied with the Margelov meeting.
“This is exactly what we are looking to hear from the Russian officials,” Ziadeh said. “We call upon Russia to use its leverage on the Syrian regime to stop the killings done by the Syrian security apparatus.”
Russia must send “a clear message that this is not acceptable,” he said.
Syria’s opposition forces are fractured by internal disputes. Many have been forced into exile, from where they have failed to accrue a significant following within the country.
Assad’s chief domestic detractors held an unusually large conference in Damascus on Monday to try to heal the divisions, releasing a communique declaring support for a popular and peaceful uprising, and warning that the country might be destroyed otherwise.
Assad himself has vowed to hold a national political dialogue on July 10 including “all factions,” according to Syria’s state-run news agency.