Russians Meet Assad as Europe Joins Gulf Pulling Diplomats

Russians Meet Assad as Europe Joins Gulf Pulling Diplomats
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, left, welcomes visiting Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, right, as Russia's Foreign Intelligence chief Mikhail Fradkov, smiles during their meeting at the presidential palace in Damascus yesterday. Photographer: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Several European Union and Persian Gulf countries recalled their ambassadors from Damascus, increasing diplomatic isolation for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as he conferred with Russian officials on a way to resolve the crisis.

Assad asked Russia to broker talks with opposition groups, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said yesterday after meeting with the Syrian leader in Damascus. Assad assigned his deputy, Farouk al-Sharaa, to lead the negotiations, Lavrov told reporters in Moscow today.

“It’s clear that the efforts to end the violence must be accompanied with the initiation of a dialogue among all political forces,” Lavrov said, according to Russian state news service Itar-Tass. “Today we received confirmation of the Syrian president’s readiness to cooperate on this.”

Russia and China on Feb. 4 vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution by western and Arab countries to facilitate a political transition. Assad thanked Lavrov for Russia’s position at the UN and said he seeks a national dialogue “without foreign interference,” according to the website of the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency.

State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland dismissed Syria’s proposal to the Russian delegation as “the same offer that Assad has been making for months and months and months.”

Shelling Resumes

The Syrian army resumed shelling residential districts in the city of Homs, killing 43 people, Al Jazeera reported today, citing unidentified Syrian activists. Five Syrian soldiers were killed and two armored vehicles were destroyed in fighting in Idlib in the north, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in an e-mailed statement today.

The prospect of civil war is growing, as the daily death toll mounts. Assad is using tanks and artillery in cities where protesters are calling for the end of his rule. At least 174 people were killed on Feb. 4, said the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, making it one of the deadliest days in the 11-month revolt.

Germany, Spain, Belgium and France announced withdrawal of diplomats yesterday. The six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council -- Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- also withdrew ambassadors from Damascus and expelled Syrian ambassadors from their capitals.

EU Observer

The EU will keep its head of delegation in Damascus to observe events “on the ground,” bloc spokesman Michael Mann said. The U.S. suspended embassy operations in Damascus and recalled Ambassador Robert Ford and the rest of the American staff Feb. 6. The Polish embassy in Damascus will represent U.S. interests in the country.

The veto by Russia and China was their second attempt to block efforts at the UN to hold Assad accountable, citing concern that the measure was aimed at regime change, as happened in Libya.

Syria’s government has blamed “terrorists” and foreign provocateurs for fomenting the protests and has rejected an Arab League plan for Assad to transfer power to a deputy, who would then begin talks with the opposition to form a unity government within two months.

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