Syrian Opposition Urges Russia to End Its Support for Assad

President Bashar Al Assad of Syria
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Photographer: Ed Kashi/National Geographic/Getty Images

Syria’s main opposition group urged Russia to end its support for President Bashar al-Assad’s government and criticized Russia for deploying naval vessels to the Middle Eastern country.

“We want a real break between Russia and the current regime,” Burhan Ghalioun, a senior member of the Syrian National Congress and its former leader, said during a news conference in Moscow today after talks between an opposition delegation and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. “You are still arming a regime that is killing its own people.”

Russia, which has refused to halt existing weapons sales to Syria, yesterday dispatched 11 military ships to the Mediterranean, some bound for its naval resupply base in the Syrian port of Tartus. Russia’s navy will deploy warships to defend merchant shipping in case of a blockade of Syria, RIA Novosti reported, citing Vyacheslav Dzirkaln, deputy head of the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation.

Russia and China have blocked United Nations sanctions over Assad’s crackdown on a 17-month uprising in Syria. While Russia won’t publicly abandon support for Assad, it’s trying to pressure the opposition to agree to share power with elements of the current government, said Alexei Malashenko, a Middle East analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

“Russia understands that Assad’s days are numbered because of the civil war and his steady loss of support,” Malashenko said by phone. “Its main concern is to keep what it can of its influence and preserve face.”

‘Clinging to Assad’

Lavrov today met with a delegation led by Abdulbaset Seida, the Syrian National Council’s new chief, after talks with Michel Kilo, another opposition leader, on July 9. Russia isn’t “clinging” to Assad and Syria should be left to decide his fate, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said yesterday on the ministry’s website.

The Syrian National Council reiterated demands that Assad step down before it holds any transition talks. Russia has proposed an alternative plan, Seida said after meeting Lavrov, according to the Interfax news service.

The opposition group accused Russia of souring the atmosphere of today’s talks by timing its naval deployment to coincide with the arrival of the delegation.

“There’s no doubt that Russia supports the Syrian regime and it’s making a mistake. This encourages the Syrian regime to kill,” said Ghalioun. “It refuses a political solution and is pursuing its military campaign as it knows it has Iran on one side and Moscow on the other.”

Tehran Talks

UN envoy Kofi Annan held talks in Tehran yesterday to enlist the help of Iran, another key Assad ally. World powers endorsed a new proposal by Annan on June 30 to establish a transitional government that may include representatives of the opposition and Assad’s administration.

Russia, which has accused the U.S. and its allies of seeking a forced ouster of Assad similar to the overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi last year that cost billions of dollars in Russian contracts, has vowed to prevent the repeat of such a scenario.

The U.S., France and the U.K. are insisting on a resolution that empowers the Security Council to impose sanctions or authorize military means to enforce its will. Russia opposes such a measure.

The violence in Syria has claimed more than 17,000 lives, including almost 4,500 members of the security forces, according to Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

‘Tacit Support’

At talks in Damascus on July 9, Assad suggested a solution to end the crisis that involves trying to contain the violence in districts where clashes are particularly extreme and “step-by-step, build up and end the violence across the country,” Annan said yesterday.

“The likelihood of the Assad regime sticking to the plan remains virtually non-existent and the divisions within the SNC and the wider opposition movement are likely to prevent any potential negotiations from succeeding,” said Jamie Ingram, a London-based Middle East analyst at IHS Global Insight. “Moscow is likely to continue holding a fairly steady line of providing tacit support for Assad.”

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