Russia meets with Syrian envoy on peace plan

Russia is seeking to revive last summer's failed peace plan for Syria during talks with a top Syrian diplomat and the international envoy on the crisis, the foreign ministry said Thursday.

U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus on Monday and is to visit Moscow this weekend, spurring speculation that there is a new plan to end the country's bloody civil war that has killed more than 40,000 people.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich denied reports of the existence of a new U.S.-Russian peace initiative, saying Russia is focused instead on fulfilling the plan brokered by Brahimi's predecessor, Kofi Annan, which was approved at an international conference in Geneva in June.

"We are trying to find a solution on the basis of the Geneva plan," Lukashevich said. "We continue to believe that there is no alternative to that document in trying to find a settlement in Syria."

The plan envisioned an open-ended cease-fire to be enforced by hundreds of U.N. monitors, followed by talks on a political transition. It called for establishing a transitional government of national unity that could include members of Assad's government, the opposition and other groups to oversee the drafting of a new constitution and elections.

But, on Russia's insistence, it left the door open for Assad being part of the transition process and was rejected by the opposition. After an initial decrease in violence, the proposed cease-fire collapsed and Syria descended even further into bloodshed.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad met Thursday with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to pave the way for Brahimi's visit. Mekdad is expected to hold talks with other top Russian diplomats later.

Russia has used its veto right alongside China at the U.N. Security Council to protect its old ally from international sanctions, but it has increasingly sought to distance itself from the Syrian strongman.

Lavrov said last week that Moscow would welcome any country's asylum offer to Assad, but has no intention of sheltering him if he steps down.

At the same time, Moscow has given no signal of a shift in its firm opposition to international sanctions against Assad and calls for him to step down.

Lukashevich said again Thursday that calls for Assad's ouster run contrary to the Geneva plan and criticized the West for backing the opposition push for the regime's ouster.

He reaffirmed that Moscow has plans to evacuate its citizens if the situation worsens, but rejected reports that a Russian navy squadron en route to the Mediterranean has such a mission.