The “core group” of the Friends of Syria, which brings together countries supporting Syria's opposition -- which is trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad's regime -- will meet in İstanbul on Saturday. Turkey is a member of the 11-nation core group, along with the United States and European and Arab nations that support the opposition.
At a joint press conference on Wednesday, Lavrov responded to a question on the upcoming meeting, describing the Friends of Syria group as a gathering of countries who are “friends with just one segment of the Syrian opposition.” He said the group's workings “negatively affect” efforts for a political solution to the Syrian crisis under a June 2012 international accord, which calls for a transitional government whose participants will be determined by the Syrians.
However, the plan, agreed upon at an international conference in Geneva, has since been mired in debate on the role of President Bashar al-Assad. Western powers insist that the plan, which was also endorsed by Russia and China, is a call on Assad to withdraw, since the embattled president will never be able to receive his people's consent to stay in the transitional government. Russia says the Geneva plan does not call for Assad's withdrawal.
With Ankara fervently defending that Assad's departure is a must, Turkey and Russia remain at opposing ends when it comes to how the crisis in Syria should be resolved. But the two countries have largely opted to leave aside the Syria differences in an attempt to keep their strong bilateral ties unaffected. Russia is a key energy supplier for Turkey; trade is flourishing between the two countries, and a Russian corporation is set to build Turkey's first nuclear power plant.
Thus, Lavrov's remarks in İstanbul stood out as perhaps the bluntest public statement by a Russian official demonstrating the depth of differences over Syria. During a visit to Turkey in December, Russian President Vladimir Putin had appeared to play down the rift, saying at a joint news conference with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that Russia and Turkey share the same goals in terms of what results they seek in Syria -- although they were not able to reach an agreement on how these goals should be achieved.
Lavrov rejected efforts to force Assad out of power, saying prospects for dialogue would be killed if the international community focuses on “isolating” one of the parties in the Syrian crisis. “If the priority is placed on regime change, the price will be [the loss of] innocent people's lives,” Lavrov said, insisting that the priority should be on ensuring that both sides end violence without any precondition. He criticized countries supporting the opposition for “calling for war until victory” and said that there should be no precondition for dialogue. Insistence on a military solution to the crisis would also lead to a bigger threat of terrorism, Lavrov warned, noting that an al-Qaeda-linked group designated as terrorist by the US is fighting against the regime in Syria.
Turkey hosted a meeting of the Syrian opposition groups in March, which resulted in the election of a transitional government for the areas “liberated” by the opposition from Assad forces. The transitional prime minister, Ghassan Hitto, rejected dialogue with the Assad regime immediately after his election, saying prospects for such talks were dead before his election.
Lavrov also criticized the Arab League for giving Syria's seat at the organization to the Syrian opposition and trying to clear the way for arms support for the opposition. “It seems that they are trying to legalize arms support for the opposition. But we consider such a step to be a violation of international law and against the consensus reached in Geneva,” Lavrov said.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, for his part, said Turkey was trying to form a common ground for a solution to the Syrian crisis and promised continued consultation with other interested parties, including Russia.
He said the conflict in Syria deeply affects Turkey, which is spending more than $700 million on some 300,000 Syrians who have fled to Turkey since the conflict began more than 2 years ago. He went on that the situation in Syria also poses a security threat to Turkey -- citing the Scud attacks by the Syrian regime near the Turkish border and prospects of chaos that could ensue if the Assad regime collapses -- and said that Turkey would not hesitate to take measures for its security.
The international community should focus on ending the bloodshed and creating conditions so that the Syrian people will be able to exercise their political will, said Davutoğlu. Without directly addressing Lavrov's criticism of focusing on Assad's departure, the foreign minister said: “Syria belongs to the people of Syria. It does not belong to other countries, and it is not the personal property of Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian people should be enabled to determine their future. We, as Turkey, are ready to actively support every effort towards achieving that goal.”
Davutoğlu and Lavrov met in İstanbul as part of a meeting of the Joint Strategic Planning Group between the two countries. Davutoğlu said Turkey and Russia aim to increase their trade volume to $100 billion and are determined to realize this goal using strong measures.