Russia says it wants Syria elections, ready to help Free Syrian Army

MOSCOW (REUTERS) - Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Kremlin wanted Syria to prepare for parliamentary and presidential elections, as Moscow intensified its drive to convert its increased clout with Damascus into a political settlement.

In comments which mark a shift in Russia's position, he also said that Russia's air force, which has been bombing Islamist militants in Syria since Sept 30, would be ready to help Western-backed Free Syrian Army rebels, if it knew where they were.

The Kremlin, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's strongest foreign ally, has spoken broadly about the need for elections in Syria before. But Mr Lavrov's comments were its most specific call for political renewal yet and came just days after a surprise visit by Mr Assad to Moscow.

"External players can not decide anything for the Syrians. We must force them to come up with a plan for their country where the interests of every religious, ethnic and political group will be well protected," Mr Lavrov told Russian state TV in an interview broadcast on Saturday (Oct 24). "They need to prepare for both parliamentary and presidential elections."

Mr Lavrov said the Kremlin has discussed the need for political progress with Mr Assad during his Moscow visit and that his army's increasing success on the battlefield, with Russian air support, would consolidate his government, making it more interested in pursuing a political path.

Mr Lavrov's interview was broadcast a day after a meeting in Vienna between Russia, the United States, Turkey and Saudi Arabia where a political solution to Syria's civil war - now in its fifth year - was discussed.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said after that meeting he expected new talks on Syria to begin as soon as next week, and did not rule out the participation of Iran, something Moscow has pushed for.

Mr Lavrov said he wanted Egypt, Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to be included as well as Iran, and spoke of the need for the European Union to start to play a bigger role too.

He said he felt other countries were finally beginning to better understand the Syrian situation despite their continued criticism of Mr Assad, a shift he said gave Moscow hope that the political process could move forward in the foreseeable future.

Washington has criticised Moscow for so far focusing most of its firepower on armed groups supported by the United States and others rather than the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, angering the Kremlin which has said it is impossible to make a distinction between terrorists.

But Mr Lavrov said Russia now stood ready to provide air support to the Free Syrian Army if the United States would help it identify where what he called "the patriotic opposition" was.

His offer drew deep scepticism from FSA commanders.

The commander of an FSE-affiliated rebel group that has been bombed in recent weeks by Russian warplanes dismissed the idea. "I will not talk to my killer," Mr Hassan Haj Ali, the head of the Liwa Suqour al-Jabal rebel group, told Reuters.

Mr Ahmed al-Seoud, head of another FSA-affiliated group, the 13th Division, was equally bemused. "Russia hit the factions of the Free Army and now it wants to cooperate with us, while sticking by Assad? We do not understand anything from Russia," he said.

The Free Syrian Army is a loose alliance of groups, most of them with a Syrian nationalist outlook, that are often led by Syrian army defectors but have no central command structure.

Russia's planes have flown 934 sorties and destroyed 819 militant targets in Syria since the start of its operation on Sept 30, the defence ministry said on Saturday.

Mr Lavrov called Washington's refusal to coordinate its Syria campaign with Moscow "a big mistake".