Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister, told reporters in Moscow that Russia recognised a “transitional period” was needed “in order to overcome the Syrian crisis and to finally establish stable rights and norms which satisfy all groups in the Syrian population”.
But he said the fate of Mr Assad “must be decided within the framework of a Syrian dialogue by the Syrian people themselves”.
Foreign ministers of major and regional powers are meeting in Geneva on Saturday for an international conference over Syria’s future.
Kofi Annan, the UN-Arab League envoy, has broached a plan for a transitional government, and diplomatic sources had suggested the Kremlin might accept a “national unity cabinet” with figures from both Mr Assad’s regime and the opposition, perhaps even excluding the current president.
However, speaking at a meeting with his Tunisian counterpart in the Russian capital, Mr Lavrov stressed that, “foreign players should not be dictating their solutions to the Syrians. We do not and cannot support any intervention or solutions dictated from abroad.”
Russia claims officially that it is neutral when it comes to Syria, and says it is in daily contact with Mr Assad to urge him to prevent violence against civilians as his military battles opposition forces.
In reality, Moscow is Damascus’s key ally in the 16 month-old conflict and Russia has blocked several UN attempts to impose sanctions on the Assad government. It has also kept up weapons supplies to his regime despite western censure.
A Russian ship bound for Syria carrying reconditioned Soviet Mi-25 helicopter gunships turned back last week after its British insurer withdrew coverage on learning of its cargo.
However, a senior Russian arms official yesterday promised the helicopters would be delivered, even if they had to be sent by air. “Syria is our friend, and we fulfil all our obligations to our friends,” he said.
Mr Lavrov said there was no agreed draft for Mr Annan’s transitional government proposal and expressed anger that “individual working formulas” had been leaked to the media.
“I view this as a manifestation of an unfair approach to diplomacy,” he said.
The Russian foreign minister also criticised the decision to exclude Iran from the Geneva talks, saying the country was “an influential player”.