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Syria’s Assad says Moscow ‘never’ spoke of departure

Syrian President Bashar Assad said Thursday he has never faced pressure from Russia to step aside, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry headed to Moscow seeking to revive stalled peace efforts.

Speaking to NBC News in Damascus, Assad insisted his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had never raised the issue of his departure or a political transition.

"Only the Syrian people define who's going to be the president, when to come, and when to go. They never said a single word regarding this," he said.

Assad's fate is a key question in efforts to bring about a negotiated settlement to Syria's five-year civil war.

Hopes for the existing peace process rest on the U.N.-backed blueprint sketched out by the 22-nation, U.S. and Russian-led International Syria Support Group.

Under this road map, signed by both Syria's ally Iran and Assad's pro-rebel foe Saudi Arabia, a nationwide ceasefire will precede Geneva-based talks on "political transition."

But there has been little progress towards a resumption of political talks that was scheduled for August 1.

Kerry was due to arrive later Thursday in Moscow, a close ally of Assad's government that launched airstrikes in support of regime forces last October.

Kerry said before leaving Washington that he would meet Putin "to see if we can somehow advance this (the peace process) in the important ways that people want us to."

Source: National News Agency