Russia's Lavrov seeks peace in Syria as forces bombard Homs

AMMAN Tue Feb 7, 2012 11:11pm GMT

1 of 14. Supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gather on a Damascus street, to welcome Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, February 7, 2012, in this handout photograph released by Syria's national news agency SANA.

Credit: Reuters/SANA

AMMAN (Reuters) - Russia won a promise from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday to bring an end to bloodshed in Syria, but Western and Arab states acted to isolate Assad further after activists and rebels said his forces killed over 100 in the city of Homs.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, representing a rare ally on a trip to the Syrian capital that other states are shunning, said both countries wanted revive a monitoring effort by the Arab League, whose plan to resolve Syria's crisis Moscow and Beijing vetoed in the U.N. Security Council.

There was no indication from Lavrov's comments that the issue of Assad eventually giving up power - a central element of the Arab proposal that failed in the Council - had been raised.

Assad said he would cooperate with any plan that stabilized Syria, but made clear that only included an earlier Arab League proposal that called for dialogue, release of prisoners and withdrawing the army from protest centers.

Walid al-Bunni, a senior member of the opposition Syrian National Council, said Lavrov brought no new initiative and that "so-called reforms" promised by Assad were not enough. "The crimes that have been committed have left no room for Bashar al-Assad to remain ruler of Syria," he told Reuters.

Russia's mediation also failed to slow a rush by countries that denounced the Russian-Chinese veto three days ago to corner Syria diplomatically and cripple Assad with sanctions in hopes of toppling him.

Opposition activists said government forces renewed shelling of the central city of Homs on Tuesday just before Lavrov's arrival, killing some 19 people in an onslaught that they say has claimed over 300 lives in the last five days.

There were also reports from residents of shelling and fighting on Tuesday between government and rebel forces in Hama, another urban stronghold of anti-Assad sentiment.

Syria says Homs - the heart of 11 months of protest against Assad's rule - is the site of a running battle with "terrorists" directed and funded from abroad. Parts of the city are held by insurgents that include army defectors.

Syria's references to foreign interference are widely read to include Gulf Arab states, which followed the lead of Washington and European Union countries on Tuesday in reducing their diplomatic presence in Damascus.

"The president of Syria assured us he was 'completely committed to the task of stopping violence, regardless of where it may come from'," Lavrov said after his meeting with Assad, accompanied by Russia's top spy.

Lavrov - whose government wields unique leverage as a major arms supplier with long-standing political ties to Damascus, and maintains a naval facility on its coast - told Assad peace was in Russia's interests.

Lavrov also affirmed Russia's "readiness to help foster the swiftest exit from the crisis on the basis of positions set out in the Arab League initiative."

Russia has supported an Arab League peace proposal for Syria floated last November envisaging a withdrawal of troops from cities and towns, the release of prisoners, and reforms.

Assad endorsed that plan, with no reference to a later version that formed the basis of the failed U.N. resolution. It called on Assad to empower a deputy to negotiate with his opponents as a step toward elections and political transition.

"Syria from the beginning has welcomed any efforts that back the Syrian solution to the crisis," the state news agency quoted Assad as saying.

"It has been committed to the Arab League plan approved last November, and cooperated fully with the mission of monitors, despite the obstruction of some Arab parties in their work."

He was referring to the Arab League mission whose collapse amid surging violence paved the way for the U.N. standoff.

Syrian state television said a committee charged with drawing up a new Syrian constitution - one of several political reforms promised by Assad - had completed its work on Tuesday.

Assad has said parliamentary elections would be held after approval of the constitution but has also pledged to eradicate "terrorists" he associates with the violence.

Lavrov said Assad, whose family has brooked no dissent in ruling Syria for 41 years, assured him he was committed to halting bloodshed by both sides and that he was ready to seek dialogue with all political groups in the country.

Russia's Foreign Ministry later said Assad confirmed his "readiness to send an official government delegation for an all-Syrian meeting in Moscow" - a proposal already rejected by members of the Syrian National Council.

BOMBARDMENT OF HOMS RESUMES

Opposition activists have dismissed Assad's reform pledges because he continued trying to crush protests with tanks and troops and branded his foes as "terrorists." The United Nations estimates over 5,000 have been killed in the crackdown.

Syrian state television showed hundreds of people gathering on a main Damascus highway to welcome Lavrov. They were waving Syrian, Russian and Hezbollah flags and held up two Russian flags made out of hundreds of red, white and blue balloons.

Opposition activists said the fresh assault on Homs came after 95 people were killed on Monday in the city of one million, Syria's third biggest. More than 200 were reported killed there by sustaining shelling on Friday night.

Syria maintains the military is fighting "terrorists" in Homs bent on dividing and sabotaging the country. State media said "tens" of terrorists and six members of the security forces were killed in clashes there on Monday.

A further 19 people were killed and at least 40 wounded in Tuesday's barrage, activists said. Some reported fighting between army defectors and government forces trying move into areas the rebels hold in Homs.

Residents of areas near the border town of Zabadani, where army defectors have a toehold after Assad's troops withdrew under a ceasefire, said government forces renewed shelling on Tuesday morning. At least nine people have been killed by heavy weapons fire into the town since Monday, activists said.

"HYSTERIA"

Moscow and Beijing were the only members of the 15-member U.N. Security Council to vote against the resolution backing an Arab League call for Assad to yield power and start a political transition. The double veto prompted unusually undiplomatic Western criticism, which Lavrov said verged on "hysteria."

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) said its members were recalling their ambassadors from Damascus and expelling Syrian envoys from their own capitals, in response to surging violence.

"It is necessary for the Arab states... to take every decisive measure faced with this dangerous escalation against the Syrian people," the Saudi-led bloc said in a statement.

"Nearly a year into the crisis, there is no glint of hope in a solution," it added.

Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil exporter, was the first country to pull out of the Arab League monitoring party in Syria, followed by the other five GCC members. The League has suspended the mission but not yet formally declared it over.

European Union states followed up their denunciation of the veto by preparing a new round of sanctions on Syria, EU diplomats said on Tuesday, with the focus on central bank assets and trade in precious metals, gold and diamonds.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, an ex-ally who has turned against Assad, described the U.N. vetoes as "a fiasco for the civilized world" and said Ankara was preparing a new initiative with those who oppose the Syrian government.

US EMBASSY SHUT, EUROPEAN ENVOYS RECALLED

The United States shut its embassy and said all staff had left Syria due to worsening security in the country, which has also been hit by suicide bombings in Damascus.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the United States was "exploring the possibility of providing humanitarian aid to Syrians," but gave no details.

France, Italy, Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain recalled their ambassadors from Syria.

President Barack Obama said in comments broadcast on Monday that Western countries were ready to lean hard on Assad diplomatically but had no intention of using force to topple him, as they did against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya last year.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Sunday the United States would work with other nations to try to tighten sanctions against Assad's government and deny it arms in the absence of a U.N. resolution.

(Additional reporting by Joseph Logan in Beirut, Mitra Amiri in Tehran, Gleb Bryanski and Steve Gutterman in Moscow, Fiona Ortiz in Madrid and Jonathon Burch in Ankara; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Jon Boyle)