Moscow seeks global pressure on Syrian rebels


RUSSIA HAS urged international envoy Kofi Annan and Arab and western states to put more pressure on Syria’s rebels to adhere to a United Nations peace plan, as fighting continued in the hours before a key deadline.

Moscow’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, also urged Damascus to be “more active” in fulfilling the terms of Mr Annan’s plan, but he insisted that responsibility for the fighting lay not only with Russian ally president Bashar al-Assad but with his opponents in Syria and abroad.

“We told our Syrian colleagues . . . that we think their actions could be more active, more decisive in regard to the fulfilment of the points of the plan,” Mr Lavrov said as he stood alongside Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moualem in Moscow.

“We spoke very frankly about this . . . We are insistently demanding from our Syrian colleagues the strict fulfilment of their commitments,” added Mr Lavrov, whose country has blocked attempts by western and Arab states to pass a tough UN Security Council resolution on Syria.

Outside Moscow and Damascus, however, there is little belief the Assad regime is engaging with the international community in good faith. British foreign secretary William Hague said there was no evidence the regime was prepared to honour an agreement to pull its troops out of Syria’s main urban centres by today. He said the regime was using Mr Annan as cover for continued repression.

“They have ruthlessly subjected whole communities to an inhumane campaign of shelling, forced expulsions and executions,” he said. “They have attempted to attach unacceptable 11th-hour conditions to a ceasefire agreement as a pretext for continuing the violence. And the regime has violated the sovereignty of Turkey and Lebanon, firing over Syria’s borders at people desperately seeking to find refuge from the regime’s onslaught.”

The assessment is shared by the White House. “Leaders of the Assad regime . . . make a lot of promises,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney. “Those promises overwhelmingly turn out to be empty . . . We have seen no evidence thus far of any [Syrian army] pullback. We have seen much evidence of further brutality and oppression against innocent civilians.”

According to Mr Annan’s plan, which Damascus says it has accepted, all government troops and heavy weaponry should have been withdrawn from urban areas by midnight in Syria last night, and a ceasefire should come into effect by 6am local time tomorrow.

Russia has increased its criticism of Syria, an old ally to which it sells weapons and where it has access to a naval base, while also accusing unnamed foreign states of arming the rebels and seeking to use the 13-month uprising against Dr Assad to oust him.

“We want once again today to call on all opposition and all states that have influence on the political – and especially the armed – opposition to use that influence to achieve an immediate ceasefire by all sides,” Mr Lavrov said, urging western and Arab countries “not to point at Russia and China but to set their levers in motion to . . . force everybody to stop shooting.” Amid reports of continued attacks by troops on rebel strongholds, he said Russia “applauded” what Mr Moualem claimed was the withdrawal of Dr Assad’s forces from Homs.

“I told my Russian colleague of the steps Syria is taking to show its goodwill for the implementation of the Annan plan . . . We have already withdrawn military units from different Syrian provinces,” Mr Moualem said.

He insisted Syria wanted to meet the terms of Mr Annan’s plan, but could not while the rebels were still fighting with alleged support from Turkey.

In a subsequent call to Mr Annan, Mr Lavrov “put special emphasis on the fact that the Syrian opposition and countries supporting it must also take urgent measures aimed at providing for a stable ceasefire, calling on Annan to increase work with them in that direction,” the foreign ministry.