Assad promises Russia he will halt violence


RUSSIA YESTERDAY received a promise from Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to halt the violence in Syria while clashes continued in western neighbourhoods of the central city of Homs.

Opposition activists reported another 100 deaths.

Following talks in Damascus with Dr Assad, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said: “The president of Syria assured us he was ‘completely committed to the task of stopping violence regardless of where it may come from’.”

Dr Assad also told him he was prepared to hold a dialogue with all opposition groups in the country, a proposition rejected by some opposition bodies who have turned down an invitation to talks in Moscow.

Mr Lavrov said it was in Russia’s interest for “Arab peoples to live in peace and agreement”. He pledged to “help foster the swiftest exit from the crisis on the basis of positions set out in the Arab League initiative” put forward last November. It called for an end to violence by all sides, withdrawal of troops from urban areas, release of prisoners, and negotiations between government and opposition.

This plan, the first put forward by the league, was incorporated, along with a controversial January proposal, in a UN Security Council resolution vetoed by Russia and China when voted on last weekend.

Russia tried and failed to convince western and Arab proponents of the measure to postpone the vote until Mr Lavrov completed his consultations in Damascus. The West and its allies rejected any delay following violence in Homs that took more than 200 lives, the opposition claimed.

However, a diplomatic source told The Irish Times that the bout of fighting that took place in Homs on Friday night and early Saturday had been instigated by opposition militiamen, who began firing mortars into neighbourhoods inhabited by Christians and heterodox Shia Alawites.

Armed elements from these areas responded and the army joined in. The objective, the source said, was to put pressure on the council to vote on the resolution without further discussion and to put pressure on Russia and China to vote in favour.

Russia and China objected to the Arab League plan’s call for Dr Assad to delegate his powers to his deputy and to a threat of fresh punitive measures if he did not comply with the terms of the resolution.

Mr Lavrov was also assured that a referendum would be held on the new constitution, its drafting now complete. Once it has been adopted, Dr Assad has pledged to set an early date for multi-party parliamentary elections. The text mandates two seven-year terms for presidents and no longer gives the Baath Party a leading role in politics.

Mr Lavrov was accompanied on his visit to Damascus by Russia’s intelligence chief because Moscow wants to see “the swiftest stabilisation of the situation in Syria on the basis of the swiftest implementation of democratic reforms”.

Meanwhile, Gulf Co-operation Council members that have not already withdrawn their ambassadors said they had recalled envoys from Damascus and were expelling Syrian diplomats from their capitals. “It is necessary for the Arab states . . . to take every decisive measure to face this dangerous escalation against the Syrian people,” the Saudi-dominated bloc said. “Nearly a year into the crisis, there is no glint of hope of a solution.”

The EU is preparing fresh sanctions focusing on central bank assets and trade in precious stones, gold and metals.

France, Italy, Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain have recalled their ambassadors. The US closed its embassy on Monday.