Annan to meet Medvedev on Syria mission

United Nations-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan was in Moscow on Sunday for talks with President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia, which has crucial influence over diplomatic efforts to end the bloodshed in Syria.

The former UN chief is visiting Russia and China — the two powers closest to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as he seeks to crush an insurgency and silence protests in which the United Nations says his forces have killed more than 8 000 civilians.

Russia and China have shielded Damascus from UN Security Council condemnation by vetoing two Western-backed resolutions in six months, including one on February 4 that would have backed an Arab League call for Assad to step aside.

But they sent a warning signal to Assad last week by approving a Security Council statement backing Annan’s mission and warning that world powers could take further action if the killing does not stop soon.

Largely to ensure Russian support, the statement included no firm deadline for implementation of its demands, potentially allowing Assad to play for time. It also included no direct call for Assad to cede power, which Russia would also have opposed.

Russia has voiced enthusiastic support for Annan’s six-point peace plan aimed at ending the violence, securing humanitarian aid and launching a political dialogue between the government and opposition groups.

But Moscow, which wants a strong role in diplomacy and is trying to avoid losing its firmest foothold in the Middle East, is at odds with Western nations over blame for the bloodshed and what must be done to stop it.

In a statement ahead of Annan’s visit, the Kremlin suggested Assad’s government is ready for dialogue and it is elements of the opposition, encouraged by contraband arms and foreign support, that is holding back.

Russia would outline “our essential approach to ensuring a ceasefire and end to violence in Syria, which will be difficult to implement without putting an end to external armed and political support of the opposition”, the statement said.

Mixed messages
“Taking into account that the Syrian authorities are ready to establish such a dialogue, the key task is to convince the Syrian opposition to sit down at the negotiation table with the authorities and reach a peaceful resolution of the crisis,” it said.

The statement marked a return to a more positive assessment of the government’s intentions after Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sharply criticised Assad in a newspaper interview last week, saying Syria’s leadership had made “very many mistakes”.

On Friday, Russia and China voted against a UN Human Rights Council resolution condemning what it called “sharply escalating” violations by Syrian forces.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said the draft was biased, “accusing only the Syrian government of violence [and] making no demands of armed opposition groups”.

With ties dating back to the Soviet era, Syria has bought billions of dollars worth of weapons and hosts Russia’s only naval base outside the former Soviet Union. – Reuters

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