- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Russia’s foreign ministry said Tuesday it doesn’t matter whether embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad stays in power, saying the decision rests with the Syrian people.

Asked whether it was crucial for Moscow that Mr. Assad retains power in Syria, Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry, told the Ekho Moskvy radio station: “Absolutely not, we’ve never said that,” BBC reported.

“What we did say is a regime change in Syria could become a local or even regional catastrophe,” she said, adding that “only the Syrian people can decide the president’s fate.”

Russia has been one of Mr. Assad’s strongest supporters and launched an airstrike campaign in late September at the Syrian President’s request, targeting anti-Assad rebels.

Mr. Assad made a surprise visit to Moscow last month to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The latest comments from the Foreign Ministry suggest an apparent effort to set the stage for transition talks.

Earlier Tuesday, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told Russian news agencies that Moscow plans to host a round of talks between Syrian officials and opposition leaders next week. He did not give a specific date for the proposed talks.

The talks are expected to be discussed Wednesday at a meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.N. Syrian envoy Staffan de Mistura, Mr. Bogdanov said.

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