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Russia Says Syrian Conference Needed to Escape Civil War

Syria is sliding toward full-scale civil war, reinforcing the “urgent” need for an international conference to pressure both sides of the conflict, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

“You have to force them to sit down at the negotiating table after first halting the violence,” Lavrov told reporters in Moscow yesterday. “That’s the point of this conference.”

International efforts are failing to halt intensifying violence as the 15-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s government deteriorates into sectarian violence.

Fighting intensified yesterday in Damascus, with rebels firing a rocket-propelled grenade at a local power plant, the Associated Press reported, citing United Nations observers. At least 42 civilians were killed yesterday in Syria outside Damascus, AP said, citing the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based activist group.

Russia and China on June 6 proposed a meeting to back efforts by Kofi Annan, the United Nations-Arab League special envoy, to broker a peaceful settlement. Iran should be invited to attend the conference, alongside the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the European Union and Arab League states including Syrian neighbors Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, Lavrov said.

The U.S. hasn’t signaled its opposition to the proposed conference while criticizing the inclusion of Iran, Lavrov said, urging President Barack Obama’s administration to show “pragmatism” by allowing the Persian Gulf state to take part.

Iran’s Influence

Iran can exert influence over Assad’s government as a regional ally, according to Lavrov. The initiative was previously rejected by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who expressed doubts that Iran would play a constructive role. Iran, whose Shiite rulers have close ties to Assad’s minority Alawite regime, is the Syrian government’s strongest backer along with Russia and China.

Fred Hof, the State Department’s special envoy to the Syrian opposition, and the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, met June 8 with two Russian deputy foreign ministers, Mikhail Bogdanov and Gennady Gatilov.

The former Cold War foes are at odds over U.S. and western efforts to oust Assad, a Russian ally. Lavrov said his country would back Assad’s resignation if it isn’t imposed from the outside and follows an agreement reached by Syrians themselves.

Russia hasn’t been supplying small arms or any weapons to Assad that can be used against Syria’s civilian population since the conflict started and will halt all weapons shipments after completing previously signed contracts to deliver air-defense systems, Lavrov said.

Repression, Massacres

Annan warned at the UN on June 7 that Syria was headed toward a future of “brutal repression, massacres, sectarian violence and even all-out civil war.” Privately, he told the 15-member Security Council that his efforts to bring about peace can’t be open-ended and international consultations must yield results, according to diplomats who were present and described the remarks on condition of anonymity.

UN observers found evidence last week of atrocities in the village of Mazraat al-Qubair, where as many as 78 people were killed, according to opposition activists. More than half of those killed in the village in Hama province were women and children, with some dying during army shelling and others burned or stabbed by pro-government shabiha militiamen who arrived an hour later, the opposition Syrian National Council said June 7 in a statement on Facebook. Syrian state television denied that and blamed “terrorists” for any atrocities.

Houla Massacre

The Qubair attack follows the massacre of 108 people, including 49 children, in Houla May 25 in one of the worst atrocities of the uprising against Assad’s government. Syria also denied responsibility for the Houla killings, accusing rebel fighters of carrying them out to cause the collapse of Annan’s plan.

Russia sees no grounds for revising its stance on the Syrian conflict, Lavrov said, reiterating the country’s opposition to any military intervention or efforts to impose sanctions on Syria’s government.

“The consequences will be unpredictable and will affect a large number of countries in the region,” Lavrov said. “It will lead to a split inside the Muslim world of Sunnis and Shiites. That scenario is quite likely if we don’t take coordinated action to get all the Syrian sides together.”

Lavrov also said a bus carrying Russian nationals working in Syria came under fire yesterday in Damascus, Assad’s stronghold, and a grenade attack on a building where Russians live took place the day before. There were no injuries, he said.

At least 20 people were killed by pre-dawn shelling in the southern city of Daraa, AP reported, citing activists. The slain, including women and children, were given a mass funeral yesterday attended by tens of thousands of Daraa residents, AP said, citing video of the scene.

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