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Russia is looking to a proposed international conference on Syria to pressure Saudi Arabia and Qatar to halt help for rebels against President Bashar al-Assad, a senior lawmaker in the Russian ruling party said.
Russia and China on June 6 proposed a meeting to back peace efforts by United Nations envoy Kofi Annan. The two nations, along with the U.S., the U.K., France, the European Union, the Organization of Islamic Conference and Arab League states, Turkey and Iran should take part, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Beijing after talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao.
“Boats carrying weapons are being dispatched and they are getting financing too because Saudi Arabia and Qatar are paying salaries to members of the Syrian Free Army,” Alexei Pushkov, the head of the foreign-affairs committee in the lower house of parliament, said in a telephone interview yesterday in Moscow. “Instead of supporting the armed actions of the opposition, we want them to exert a restraining influence.”
Putin, who returned to the presidency for a third term last month, has signaled that Russia won’t insist on Assad staying in power. A U.S. delegation, led by Fred Hof, the State Department’s special envoy to the Syrian opposition, began talks with Russian officials including Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov today in Moscow. A statement will be issued after the meeting, the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
Russia has shielded the Assad regime, its biggest Middle East ally, vowing to veto any attempt at imposing sanctions on the Syrian government through the UN Security Council. The threat has hobbled 15 months of international efforts to pressure the Assad government as the conflict deteriorated from peaceful protests into an armed fighting with sectarian undercurrents.
The U.S. delegation will try to forge a common approach to moving Assad aside, with the goal of replacing him with someone acceptable to both sides in the conflict, according to two U.S officials speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar, ruled by Sunni monarchies that are at odds with Syria’s mainly Shiite ally, Iran, have publicly voiced support for arming the rebels. Syria’s ambassador to Russia said last week that the two countries are sabotaging the UN plan by continuing to arm rebels in violation of a cease-fire agreement reached in April.
“Weapons are entering Syria through its borders with Lebanon and Turkey,” Riad Haddad said in a June 1 interview. “And these are heavy weapons.”
Lebanese authorities at the end of April seized a ship originating in Libya that was carrying anti-tank and anti- aircraft missiles destined for Syrian opposition groups, Haddad said.
The U.S. in turn has accused Russia of propping up Assad’s regime by supplying weapons to Syria. The latest shipment was delivered by a boat owned by billionaire Vladimir Lisin on May 26, a person with direct knowledge of the matter said.
Annan, who visited Syria in the wake of the May 25 massacre of more than 100 people in Houla, called on Assad’s government and opposition forces to halt the violence and abide by the cease-fire agreement.
Russia, China and other countries received a request from the Syrian government to investigate the massacre in Houla, Pushkov said.
“There’s no proof of either the involvement of pro- government or opposition forces,” he said. “If you listen to Western media, you hear witnesses who say pro-government militia carried it out, but if you listen to Syrian media, you hear witnesses who say that it was opposition fighters.”
The UN Human Rights Council called for a probe into the Houla killings, including dozens of children, which it said were carried out by “pro-regime elements” and government forces. Syria blamed terrorists for the atrocity.
The timing of the Houla massacre, as well as reports two days ago by opposition activists of the killing of 78 people, more than half of them women and children, in a village in Hama province, point to the involvement of rebel fighters, according to Pushkov. The first massacre happened a day before Annan visited Syria and the latest just before UN Security Council discussions on Syria, he said.
“To carry out such acts on the eve of such events is absolutely counterproductive for the Syrian government,” Pushkov said. “To the contrary, I can see that for rebel fighters, especially Islamist rebel fighters for whom blood is cheap, as shown by experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and many other places, there is a direct political benefit.”
Syria has found evidence that fighters from Libya and Tunisia with ties to al-Qaeda are among the rebels and some of the Houla massacre was filmed, the Syrian ambassador to Russia said.
“The main aim is to cause failure of the Annan plan and to provoke foreign military interference,” he said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Henry Meyer in Moscow at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at email@example.com