25 Killed in Syria, Russia OK With Assad Departure

Posted June 9th, 2012 at 4:45 pm (UTC-5)
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Activists say at least 25 people were killed in anti-government related violence in Syria Saturday, while Russia said it would not object to the departure of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad if Syrian people agree to the move.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says at least 17 people were killed as government forces pounded the southern city of Dara'a. The British-based opposition group says at least eight other people died in shelling and clashes between Syrian government troops and the and opposition Free Syrian Army in other areas, including the flashpoint Homs region.

Residents of Damascus also reported clashes between the two sides in the heart of the capital, including the upscale Mazzeh district.

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Saturday Moscow would support Mr. Assad's departure if Syrians themselves agree on it.

Russia also pushed the idea of an international conference on Syria to galvanize international commitment to the peace plan brokered by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

Members of the opposition Syrian National Council had mixed views on whether Lavrov's comments represent a new stance for Russia, which has been a strong backer of the Assad government.

Council member Ausama Monajed tells VOA Lavrov's remarks are “rhetoric.”

“What kind of dialogue? If you have a brutal, bloody mafia regime killing its own people, slaughtering children and women, and then you say dialogue, how would you have dialogue with someone who is pointing a gun at your head?”

Syrian National Council spokeswoman, Basma Kodmani, says the Syrian government violence and brutality is becoming an embarrassment to Russia.

“I think what we are seeing now is gradually, but we hope very quickly, a change of position by Russia to put it in a situation where it can this time contribute positively to finding a very quick solution to the situation.”

Kodmani is in Istanbul for a meeting of opposition groups to elect a new leader of the Syrian National Council. The gathering follows last month's resignation of Burhan Ghalioun, who was the target of increasing criticism.

The VOA reporter in Istanbul says the only current candidate for the leadership post is Abdul-Basset Sayda , a Kurdish activist who heads the SNC's human-rights department and lives in exile in Sweden. He is seen as a neutral candidate, who will appeal to liberals, Islamists and nationalists in the opposition coalition.

One of the most damaging criticism of the Syrian National Council is that it is dominated by the Sunni Muslim, pro-Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Observers say that if of particular concern to Syria's Alawites, followers of a branch of Shia Islam. Alawites are a minority in Syria but their members include most of the current regime's senior officials, including Mr. Assad and his family. The council maintains it represents all Syrians and is committeed to a tolerant and diverse country.

With the situation in Syria rapidly deteriorating and close to all-out civil war, delegates at the Istanbul meeting want to give a strong message of unity.