PARIS (Reuters) - The Russian ambassador to France said on Friday he believed that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had accepted he would have to leave power although only in an orderly fashion, but the Syrian government swiftly denied this.
Ambassador Alexandre Orlov told French RFI radio that Assad, facing a surging uprising against his rule, signaled readiness to step down when he accepted a recent international declaration which foresaw a transition towards a more democratic Syria.
"At the Geneva conference, there was a final communiqué that foresees a transition towards a more democratic system," Orlov said. "This final communiqué was accepted by Assad. Assad nominated his representative to lead the negotiations with the opposition for this transition. That means he accepted to leave, but in an orderly way."
Syria's Information Ministry quickly denied this, saying Orlov's remarks were "completely devoid of truth".
Orlov further said his personal opinion Assad would not be able to remain in power. "I think it will be difficult for him to stay after everything that has happened. But essentially, he has accepted that he will have to leave."
Russia on Thursday blocked a Western-backed U.N. Security Council resolution that would have contained a threat to impose sanctions if Syria did not comply with U.N.-Arab League Special Envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan.
Moscow has repeatedly said any deal must follow the principles outlined at talks in Geneva on June 30 between Annan and veto-holding members of the Security Council, which Russia until now had said did not specifically require Assad's exit.
"What Russia is defending is not Bashar al-Assad's regime, but international order that was created in 1945 around the United Nations," Orlov said. "For us it is a matter of principle that goes beyond what is happening in Syria."
A senior Western diplomat recommended caution with respect to Orlov's comments. "We have not heard Assad say he is willing to step down before," the diplomat said. "But what does he mean? Does he mean now or in two years time. We have to be cautious."
(Reporting By John Irish in Paris, Khaled Yaboub Oweis in Amman, Dominic Evans in Beirut; Editing by Mark Heinrich)