Syrian President Bashar al-Assad asked Russia to broker talks with opposition groups in a bid to end 11 months of violence, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after talks in Damascus today.
“It’s clear that the efforts to end the violence must be accompanied with the initiation of a dialog among all political forces,” Lavrov said, according to a pool report from Russian state news service Itar-Tass. “Today we received confirmation of the Syrian president’s readiness to cooperate on this.”
Lavrov and the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, Mikhail Fradkov, met Assad three days after Russia and China drew condemnation for vetoing a UN Security Council resolution that backed an Arab League plan for a transfer of power in Syria. Russia, accused by Syria’s opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, of giving Assad a “license to kill” through its UN vote, argues that political change can only be achieved through negotiations.
Russia is seeking to maintain influence in its Middle East ally as pressure builds on Assad after escalating unrest that the UN estimates has killed more than 5,400 people since March. Syrian forces killed 98 people in the central city of Homs yesterday, continuing an assault that started last weekend, Al Jazeera said, citing activists.
“It’s too late,” Fyodor Lukyanov, an analyst at the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow, said by phone today. “The international reaction is already clear: Western and Arab nations are delegitimizing Assad and the opposition recognized by them won’t enter into any talks with the regime.”
Assad said he is committed to ending the violence and reiterated a pledge to hold a referendum on a new constitution that would curb some of the ruling Baath party’s power, according to Lavrov.
“Every leader in every country should acknowledge their share of responsibility,” Lavrov told Assad at the start of their talks. “You acknowledge yours.” Russia is interested in the “peace and cohesion” of Arab nations, he said.
Assad asked Russia “to bring influence to bear on opposition groups, which aren’t engaging in dialog yet,” Lavrov said. Russia supplies arms to Syria, where it has its only military base outside the former Soviet Union.
“While the West will probably not endorse Russian mediation, a Russian attempt to ease or end the violence would be judged by the results,” Cliff Kupchan, an analyst at New York-based research firm Eurasia Group, said by e-mail. “It would be tacitly welcome as one of several efforts to stop the bloodshed.”
The Russian delegation was greeted by crowds of Syrians as it reached the center of Damascus, with some chanting “Russia” and waving their hands, Itar-Tass said. Thousands of people, including students, children and the elderly came out to thank Russia for its support along streets bedecked with Russian and Syrian flags, the Foreign Ministry in Moscow said on its Twitter Inc. account.
As Russia pursued its diplomatic efforts, Western and Arab nations ratcheted up pressure on Syria after their failed bid to win international endorsement for Assad’s departure.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called today on Russia to demand that Syria end its crackdown and said increased pressure on Assad will include a new round of sanctions.
Violence Must End
“We expect that Russia makes clear -- with no ifs, ands, or buts -- that this violence and repression must come to an end,” Westerwelle said in a statement.
Gulf Arab countries said they are expelling Syrian ambassadors from their capitals in response to the “massacre” against the country’s people by forces loyal to Assad. The six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council also withdrew their ambassadors from Damascus, the country’s capital, the group said in an e-mailed statement today.
Russia blocked the UN resolution on Feb. 4 after unsuccessfully pressing for changes to the text that would have called on opposition armed groups in Syria to halt attacks and endorsed the Arab League plan without backing any specific timetable for Assad’s departure. The U.S. said it was “disgusted” at the Russian and Chinese veto.
The Arab League in November imposed sanctions on Syria and sent monitors to the country in an effort to stop the violence. It later drafted a plan that called for the formation of a national unity government within two months to implement a peaceful handover of power and announced an end to the observer mission.
Russia argues that the UN-sanctioned bombing of Libya last year by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was used to bring about regime change and that the U.S. and western European governments are trying to repeat that scenario in Syria.
Without a UN mandate, Western powers will be reluctant to get involved militarily in Syria, and the Arab League won’t have the stomach to fight with one of its members, said Eyal. Qatar last month proposed sending Arab troops to Syria to halt the violence.
Russia has invited Syria’s government and the opposition to hold talks in Moscow and is ready to consider any alternative venues for negotiations, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said yesterday.
Assad inherited power in 2000 from his father, Hafez al- Assad, a Soviet ally who ruled for three decades and received weapons and financial support for the Arab standoff against Israel.
Russia has a naval base in the Syrian port of Tartous and billions of dollars of arms contracts with the Middle Eastern state. After the 2003 overthrow of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi last year, Syria is the last major customer for Russian weapons in the region.
“The West views Russian policy toward Syria with frustration and some anger,” Kupchan said. Even so, “the West has neither good options nor much influence over the situation on the ground.”
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