Russian FM Meets Syria’s Assad as Violence Continues

Posted February 7th, 2012 at 11:55 am (UTC-5)
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Russia's foreign minister says Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will push ahead with promised reforms and soon set a date for a referendum on a new constitution aimed at broadening political participation. He spoke after the two met in Damascus to discuss the country's escalating violence.

Russian state media Tuesday quoted Sergei Lavrov as saying Mr. Assad backs expanding an Arab League monitoring mission and is ready for dialogue with the opposition. Repeated efforts by the league and Russia to broker talks have been rejected by anti-government dissidents, who refuse to meet Syrian officials amid Mr. Assad's bloody crackdown on an 11-month-old protest movement.

Several European countries, including France, Italy and Spain, recalled their ambassadors to Syria on Tuesday, citing the Assad government's continued repression. The six Gulf Cooperation Council states, led by Saudi Arabia, also announced they are withdrawing their ambassadors from Damascus and expelling Syrian envoys in response to the worsening violence.

The United States closed its embassy in Damascus Monday, the same day Britain withdrew its envoy.

Syrian activists said heavy shelling resumed in the protest hub of Homs, a day after nearly 100 civilians were killed in fighting across the country. They reported tanks and troops closing in on rebel-held Baba Amr and other districts of Homs, tightening a months-long siege of the city. Activists said a further 15 people were killed and at least 40 wounded in Tuesday's barrage. Syria blames the violence on “armed terrorists” bent on dividing and sabotaging the country.

Turkey said Tuesday it will launch a new initiative to address the situation in Syria. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara will work with countries that stand by the Syrian people, and not the government.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is due to arrive in Washington Wednesday for talks with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has said the United States would work with other nations to tighten sanctions against Mr. Assad's government and deny it arms in the absence of a U.N. resolution.

On Saturday, Russia and China vetoed a Western and Arab-backed U.N. Security Council resolution that would have endorsed an Arab League plan for Mr. Assad to step aside, order his troops to stand down and enact democratic reforms. Moscow and Beijing said they blocked the measure because they perceived it as taking sides in a domestic conflict and providing a possible pretext for foreign military intervention.

Moscow is a key weapons supplier and trade partner for Syria. China said Tuesday it is considering sending its own envoys to the region in a bid to help resolve the crisis.

Mr. Erdogan called the Russian-Chinese double veto a “fiasco” that has given Mr. Assad “a license to kill,” joining mounting criticism of the votes by Western diplomats. Turkey has for months sheltered several thousand Syrian refugees, including the leadership of the rebel Free Syrian Army. The opposition Syrian National Council in December opened an office in Istanbul.

Syria's uprising has escalated in recent months into open conflict between rebels and pro-Assad forces. Last month, the United Nations estimated the death toll from the unrest at 5,400 before it stopped updating the figure because of difficulties in obtaining information.

Activists say hundreds more are believed to have been killed in Homs alone during this week's assault while the government also pushes ahead with crackdowns in the Damascus suburbs and other restive areas. Casualty figures cannot be independently confirmed because Syria restricts independent reporting.