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Russia Open to UN Role to Halt Syria Violence, Lavrov Says

The United Nations can play a role in bringing the Syrian conflict to a halt as long as outside intervention isn’t imposed and opposition fighters also agree to a cease-fire, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

Russia is willing to talk about establishing a so-called “humanitarian corridor” in Syria when foreign ministers meet in Vienna tomorrow, Lavrov told reporters in the Austrian capital. A corridor for aid to be delivered to embattled cities has been proposed by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Milliyet newspaper reported yesterday.

“Intervention from the outside won’t solve this problem,” Lavrov said today. His comments, made in Russian, were translated into German. “Only intensive dialogue within Syria will bring about a solution.”

Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution on Feb. 4 that was supported by the Arab League and aimed at installing a transitional government in Syria, to be followed by elections. Syria’s army has intensified attacks since the resolution was vetoed, deploying tanks and armored vehicles and using heavy artillery and machine guns, according to activists.

Lavrov, who met with President Bashar al-Assad Feb. 8 in Damascus, said it “isn’t impossible” that the Syrian leader would resign voluntarily if all parties involved in the conflict chose to negotiate. Some opposition leaders are refusing to talk, he said.

‘Political Pluralism’

Assad today called a referendum on a new constitution for Feb. 26. The draft document, published by the Syrian Arab News Agency, promises “political pluralism” and democratic elections and limits presidents to two seven-year terms. Assad’s Baath party has had a monopoly in politics since it banned opposition groups after seizing power in a 1963 coup.

Assad promised constitutional changes last year after protests against his government broke out in mid-March. The UN estimated that more than 5,400 people had been killed in Syria as of Jan. 10.

“This isn’t a constitution that has been voted on by an elected assembly, it’s been created by Baathist bureaucrats and presented for a referendum to the public,” said Chris Phillips, a lecturer in international relations specializing in the Middle East at Queen Mary College in London. “Right from the word go it’s not even in the spirit of open multiparty politics.”

Peacekeeping Force

The Arab League has called for the formation of an Arab-UN peacekeeping force. The league said on Feb. 12 it will ask the Security Council to authorize a joint mission to supervise implementation of a cease-fire, to replace an Arab League observation mission that was suspended as violence against protesters continued. Syria has rejected the plan.

The proposed constitution “is not the first proposed reform from the government during this crisis and it’s unlikely to be the last,” Phillips said. It’s “highly unlikely to win over the people who are on the streets demonstrating against President Assad.”

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon will join Lavrov tomorrow in Vienna. The ministers are gathering in the Austrian capital to discuss Afghan opium production.

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