Russian FM: Syria’s Assad to Set Constitutional Referendum


Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will soon set a date for holding a referendum on a new constitution, after the two met in Damascus to discuss the escalating violence in the country.
Russian state media quoted Lavrov as saying Mr. Assad told him he will meet in the coming days with a commission that prepared a draft of the new constitution. Lavrov had reportedly told Mr. Assad, “every leader of every country must be aware of his share of responsibility. You are aware of yours.”
Russia's top diplomat and foreign intelligence chief are on a one-day visit to Syria that the Russian Foreign Ministry said is part of Moscow's efforts to stabilize its key Middle East ally based on “democratic reforms whose time has come.”
Meanwhile, France recalled its ambassador to Syria, citing the Assad government's continued repression of an 11-month-old protest movement. The move comes after the United States closed its embassy in Damascus Monday and Britain and Italy withdrew their envoys for emergency talks.
Syrian activists say heavy shelling resumed Tuesday in the protest hub of Homs, a day after nearly 100 civilians were killed in fighting across the country. The bombardment marks the fifth day of a government assault that began with what rights groups said was a massacre of at least 200 residents late Friday into Saturday. Syria's state news agency blames the violence on “armed terrorists.”
Meanwhile, Turkey said Tuesday it will launch a new initiative to address the situation in Syria. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara will work with countries that stand by the Syrian people, and not the government.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is due to arrive in Washington Wednesday for talks with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has said the United States would work with other nations to tighten sanctions against Mr. Assad's government and deny it arms in the absence of a U.N. resolution.
Last week, Russia and China vetoed a Western and Arab-backed U.N. Security Council resolution that would have endorsed an Arab League plan for Mr. Assad to step aside, order his troops to stand down and enact democratic reforms. Moscow and Beijing said they blocked the measure because they perceived it as taking sides in a domestic conflict and providing a possible pretext for foreign military intervention.
Moscow is a key weapons supplier and trade partner for Syria. China said Tuesday it is considering sending its own envoys to the region in a bid to help resolve the crisis.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement Monday that Russia and China's veto gives “no license” to Damascus to step up attacks on the population. He said no government can commit such acts “without its legitimacy being eroded.”
Syria's opposition uprising has escalated in recent months into open conflict between rebels and pro-Assad forces. Last month, the United Nations estimated the death toll from the unrest at 5,400 before it stopped updating the figure because of difficulties in obtaining information.
Casualty figures cannot be independently confirmed because Syria restricts independent reporting.