Russian Envoys Head to Syria to Prod Assad After Blocking UN Resolution

By Henry Meyer and Ilya Arkhipov

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad asked Russia to broker talks with opposition groups in a bid to end 11 months of violence, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after talks in Damascus today.
“It’s clear that the efforts to end the violence must be accompanied with the initiation of a dialog among all political forces,” Lavrov said, according to a pool report from Russian state news service Itar-Tass. “Today we received confirmation of the Syrian president’s readiness to cooperate on this.”
Lavrov and the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, Mikhail Fradkov, met Assad 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. Russia, accused by Syria’s opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, of giving Assad a “license to kill” through its UN veto, argues that political change can only be achieved through negotiations.
Assad asked Russia “to bring influence to bear on opposition groups, which aren’t engaging in dialog yet,” Lavrov said. Russia supplies arms to Syria, where it keeps its only military base outside the former Soviet Union.

5,400 Deaths

Russia is seeking to maintain its influence in the Middle East as pressure builds on Assad after escalating unrest that the UN estimates has killed more than 5,400 people since March. Syrian forces yesterday killed 98 people in the central city of Homs, continuing an assault that started last weekend, Al Jazeera said, citing activists.
Assad said he is committed to end the violence and reiterated a pledge to hold a referendum on a new constitution that would curb some of the ruling Baath party’s power, according to Lavrov.
“Every leader in every country should acknowledge their share of responsibility,” Lavrov told Assad at the start of their talks. “You acknowledge yours.” Russia is interested in the “peace and cohesion” of Arab nations, he said.
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.

To contact the reporters on this story: Henry Meyer in Moscow at hmeyer4@bloomberg.net; Ilya Arkhipov in Moscow at iarkhipov@bloomberg.net
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at bpenz@bloomberg.net