MOSCOW – Russia's foreign minister said Friday that Moscow isn't discussing Syria's future without President Bashar Assad as Washington has claimed, in the latest volley in a contentious back-and-forth on how to end the bloody conflict.
Sergey Lavrov denied Thursday's statement by U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland that Moscow and Washington "are continuing to talk about a post-Assad transition strategy."
Lavrov, who met with the State Department's No. 2 official William Burns in Kabul on Thursday, maintained that Russia believes it's up to the Syrians to determine their country's future and said foreign players shouldn't meddle.
"It's not true that we are discussing Syria's fate after Bashar Assad," Lavrov said following talks in Moscow with his Iraqi counterpart. "We aren't dealing with a regime change either through approving unilateral actions at the United Nations Security Council nor through taking part in some political conspiracies."
In Washington, a senior White House foreign policy aide had tough words for Russia, especially on the question of whether Assad could remain in power.
"President Putin clearly is somebody who can articulate where he has differences with the United States. But we can also articulate where we have differences with Russia," deputy U.S. national security adviser Ben Rhodes said.
The United States is not trying to end Russian influence in Syria, Rhodes said, and has appealed to Russia for help brokering an end to Assad's rule.
"We've been working to get the Russians to come in line with, frankly, the broad international community," Rhodes said. "This is not just an issue between the United States and Russia."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has issued increasingly harsh words over Russia's refusal to take tougher measures on Syria, though her accusation that Russia "dramatically" escalated the crisis in Syria lost steam Thursday when the State Department acknowledged the helicopters she accused Moscow of sending were actually refurbished ones already owned by the Assad regime.
The claim had complicated the Obama administration's larger goals for Syria and U.S.-Russia relations.
Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement Friday that Moscow is only providing Syria with defensive weapons, adding that the refurbishment of the helicopters supplied many years ago had been planned in advance.
Despite pressure from the West, Russia, along with China, has twice shielded Syria, its last remaining ally in the Arab world, from international sanctions over Assad's violent crackdown on protests that have left 13,000 people dead, according to opposition groups.
Lavrov argued that an international conference on Syria that Russia has proposed should focus on persuading the Syrian parties to sit down for talks. He said that a June 30 meeting on Syria in Geneva proposed by U.N. and Arab League envoy for Syria, Kofi Annan, should pursue the same goal, warning that Russia would oppose any attempt to use the conference to determine Syria's future.
"This meeting should be aimed at mobilizing resources that foreign players have to create conditions needed to start an all-Syrian political process, not to predetermine its direction," said Lavrov.
He warned against using the conference to "justify any future unilateral actions."
Lavrov said that Russia believes that a conference on Syria it's proposing should bring together the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council along with all Syria's neighbors, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the Arab League, the European Union and Iran.
In an apparent reference to the U.S. objections against Iran's participation, Lavrov said the conference organizers should be driven by a desire to settle the conflict, not "ideological preferences."
In an opinion piece posted Friday on the Huffington Post, Lavrov insisted that "Russia is not a defender of the current regime in Damascus and has no political, economic or other reasons for becoming one."
He also reaffirmed criticism of Assad, saying that "the main responsibility for the crisis that has swept over the country lies with the Syrian government, that has failed to take the course of reform in due time or draw conclusions from the deep changes unfolding in international relations."
But Lavrov also argued that a push for an immediate ouster of Assad would plunge Syria into an all-out war. "Pressing for an immediate ousting of Bashar al-Assad, contrary to the aspirations of a considerable segment of Syrian society that still relies on this regime for its security and well-being, would mean plunging Syria into a protracted and bloody civil war," Lavrov wrote.