(Updates with Lavrov’s comments in third paragraph.)
Feb. 7 (Bloomberg) -- A top-level Russian delegation sought to prod President Bashar al-Assad toward a political settlement after Russia shored up the Syrian leader by blocking United Nations action over his 11-month-old crackdown.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Mikhail Fradkov, the head of the Foreign Intelligence Service, entered talks with Assad in Damascus three days after Russia and China drew condemnation for vetoing a UN Security Council resolution that backed an Arab League plan for a transfer of power in Syria.
“Every leader in every country should acknowledge their share of responsibility,” Lavrov told Assad, according to a pool report from the state-run Itar-Tass news service. “You acknowledge yours.” Russia is interested in the “peace and cohesion” of Arab nations, he added.
Russia, which maintains its only military base outside the former Soviet Union in Syria and sells the country weapons, is maneuvering to preserve some influence in its Middle East ally as pressure builds on Assad after escalating unrest that the UN estimates has killed more than 5,400 people since March 2011. Syrian forces yesterday killed 98 people in the central city of Homs, continuing an assault that started last weekend, Al Jazeera said, citing activists.
The Russian delegation was greeted by crowds of Syrians as it reached the center of Damascus, some chanting “Russia” and waving their hands, Itar-Tass said. Thousands of people, including students, children and the elderly came out to thank Russia for its support along streets bedecked with Russian and Syrian flags, the Foreign Ministry in Moscow said on its Twitter Inc. account.
No Departure Talk
The Russian envoys holding talks with Assad today aren’t discussing his departure from power, said Syria’s ambassador to Moscow, Riad Hassad, Interfax reported.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called today on Russia to demand that Syria end its crackdown and said increased pressure on Assad will include a new round of sanctions.
“We expect that Russia makes clear -- with no ifs, ands, or buts -- that this violence and repression must come to an end,” Westerwelle said in a statement.
Russia supports the Syrian people’s desire “for a better life and justice,” and would urge Assad to enact reforms speedily, Lavrov said on the eve of his departure.
Syria’s opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, which accused Russia and China of giving Assad a “license to kill” through their double veto on Feb. 4, must agree to hold talks with the government, Alexander Lukashevich, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said yesterday by phone.
‘Process of Dialogue’
“We hope this meeting will promote the start of a process of dialogue between the different sides in Syria,” Lukashevich said, referring to the talks with the Syrian leader. “The only way to resolve the issue is through political means.”
Lavrov said yesterday that Russia had asked the U.S. and its European and Arab allies to delay a vote on the resolution until after the Damascus mission, and was rebuffed. Russia asked for changes to the text that would have called on opposition armed groups in Syria to halt attacks and endorsed the Arab League plan without backing any specific timetable for Assad’s departure.
The Arab League in November imposed sanctions on Syria and sent monitors to the country in an effort to stop the violence. The league later drafted a plan that called for the formation of a national unity government within two months to implement a peaceful handover of power.
Russia argues that the UN-sanctioned bombing of Libya last year by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was used to bring about regime change and that the U.S. and western European governments are trying to repeat that scenario in Syria.
Clandestine help for armed opponents of Assad is already taking place, according to Jonathan Eyal, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
Without a UN mandate, Western powers will be reluctant to get involved militarily in Syria, and the Arab League won’t have the stomach to fight with one of its members, said Eyal. Qatar last month proposed sending Arab troops to Syria to halt the violence.
Russia’s its aim in the talks with Assad is to “achieve a rapid stabilization of the situation in Syria based on the swiftest implementation of democratic changes that are required now,” according to a Foreign Ministry statement issued Feb. 5.
Russia has invited Syria’s government and the opposition to hold talks in Moscow and is ready to consider any alternative venues for negotiations, Lukashevich said.
While Russia isn’t intent on propping up the Syrian leader, it will resist any Western efforts to dislodge him, said Irina Zvyagelskaya, a Middle East analyst at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
“Assad may have to go, but it’s not right to force him out,” she said by phone yesterday. “The Syrians have to sit down at the negotiating table.”
Assad inherited power in 2000 from his father, Hafez al- Assad, a Soviet ally who ruled for three decades and received weapons and financial support for the Arab standoff against Israel.
Russia has a naval base in the Syrian port of Tartous and billions of dollars of arms contracts with the Middle Eastern state. After the 2003 overthrow of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi last year, Syria is the last major customer for Russian weapons in the region.
Russia’s diplomatic mission to Damascus “indicates that Moscow knows the regime is in trouble,” Andrew J. Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in response to e-mailed questions.
“They want to try and see if they can prop it up by convincing it to reform -- the one thing this regime has proven incapable of doing for over four decades,” Tabler said.
--With assistance from Glen Carey in Dubai and Patrick Donahue in Berlin. Editors: Andrew Langley, Paul Abelsky, Zoe Schneeweiss
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