Russia wants an immediate and synchronized cease-fire in Syria monitored by the United Nations to end the “horrible” events unfolding in that country, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
Speaking before talks in Moscow today with special envoy Kofi Annan, Lavrov said that as part of its draft UN resolution Russia has proposed enlisting the organization’s observers to negotiate a withdrawal by government and opposition forces.
“Only a simultaneous end to violence is possible, followed by a simultaneous pullout of troops -- both government forces and combat detachments of the opposition from all towns,” Lavrov told reporters. “We think that to achieve that, UN observers should be charged with coordinating a concrete plan with both sides for every town involved in a military confrontation.”
Russia has said it will continue to use its veto to protect its Soviet-era ally as world powers prepare for a July 18 vote in New York on a Western-drafted Security Council resolution threatening President Bashar al-Assad with measures such as sanctions. The International Red Cross yesterday declared the Syrian conflict a civil war, a status that could facilitate prosecutions for war crimes, the Associated Press reported.
Government forces yesterday stormed neighborhoods in Deraa and used helicopters and heavy artillery in Deir al-Zour in the east of the country, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in an e-mailed statement. Heavy fighting involving mortars and artillery also erupted in central Damascus late yesterday, it said.
Lavrov reiterated that Russia isn’t backing Assad’s regime and the country’s “sole interest is to prevent the destabilization of the Syrian state.”
“We aren’t taking any side in the Syrian conflict,” he said.
Time is running out for Annan’s peace efforts, which in five months have failed to secure a promised cease-fire. His transition plan, which envisions Assad’s mediated exit within a year, hinges on Russia withholding its veto.
Western requests for Russia to facilitate Assad’s ouster are “unrealistic,” Lavrov said.
“He won’t leave not because we are defending him but because a very, very sizable part of the country’s population is behind him,” he said.
Lavrov also urged a continued investigation into killings carried out at the Sunni Muslim village of Tremseh in Hama province. The opposition Syrian National Council said as many as 305 people were killed there in a July 12 assault. The team of observers still hasn’t been able to determine the number of casualties. Interviews with 27 local residents revealed that the attack started with a shelling of the village followed by ground operations.
Reports of the death toll in Tremseh are “contradictory,” Lavrov said. The attack started after a government military patrol near the village came under fire from members of the Syrian Free Army, he said.
Opposition fighters then retreated to the village, where they were pursued and attacked by Assad’s forces, according to Lavrov. About 40 opposition gunmen were killed in the 1 1/2-hour assault that followed, he said.
According to Syrian National Council member Abdulrahman Alhaj, the attack began at dawn when Syrian troops surrounded the town of 10,000 residents, most of them Sunni Muslims, with 150 tanks and armored vehicles and started shelling. Then soldiers, backed by the pro-government Shabiha militia, stormed the town for five hours, he said.
That version is challenged by the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency, which said the deaths were the result of a clash between security forces and “terrorist” groups -- as the government characterizes anti-regime fighters -- after local residents called for help.