Aug 14, 8:49 AM EDT

Syrian opposition leader: 'Russia isn't clinging to Assad'


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MOSCOW (AP) -- Russia isn't committed to keeping Syrian President Bashar Assad in power, the leader of the main Syrian opposition group said Friday after talks in Moscow.

Speaking a day after meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Syrian National Coalition president Khaled Khoja said that "the Russian leadership isn't clinging to Bashar Assad" and is focusing on the need to preserve Syria's territorial integrity.

It wasn't immediately clear whether Khoja's statement signaled a shift in Russia's stance, or merely reflected Moscow's attempt to rally Syrian opposition support for its new push to help mediate the conflict.

Lavrov's meeting with his Saudi counterpart earlier this week highlighted continuing sharp differences about the Syrian ruler's fate. While Russia called for including Syrian government troops in a coalition fighting Islamic State extremists, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir rejected any role for Assad.

Moscow has been a key backer of Assad throughout the conflict that has dragged on for more than four years, leaving at least 250,000 dead and turning more than 4 million into refugees.

Khoja reaffirmed Friday that Assad and his top lieutenants couldn't be part of a transitional government. He said he and the Russians didn't discuss any candidates for the future interim authority, adding that his group and Moscow will continue consultations.

Khoja said Russia's main focus was the need to preserve Syria's territorial integrity and avoid the collapse of the country's state structures, adding that he offered assurances that the National Coalition stands for preserving state institutions.

Lavrov also met separately Friday with exiled Syrian opposition figure Haitham Manna.

President Vladimir Putin launched Russia's new mediation effort at June's meeting with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Earlier this month, Lavrov conferred about Syria with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the Saudi foreign minister in Qatar.

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