Russia claims Assad promised 'end to violence'

France, Gulf states pull envoys; 19 killed as Moscow's top diplomat visits Damascus; leaked emails purport to show regime's tactics for manipulating Western media.

By OREN KESSLER, REUTERS
February 8, 2012 09:53
Syria's Assad meets Russian FM Lavrov in Damascus

Assad and Lavrov 390. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Russia won a promise from Syrian President Bashar Assad on Tuesday to bring an end to bloodshed in his country, but Western and Arab states acted to isolate Assad further after activists and rebels said his forces killed over 100 in the city of Homs.

Visiting Damascus, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hinted that the issue of Assad giving up power – a central element of the Arab proposal that Russia vetoed this week at the UN Security Council – had been raised. Assad said he would cooperate with any plan that stabilized Syria, but made clear that it would only include an earlier Arab League proposal that called for dialogue, release of prisoners and withdrawing the army from protest centers.

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France withdrew its ambassador on Tuesday, vowing not to give up on peace efforts and saying Assad’s days at the helm are numbered.

Opposition activists said government forces renewed shelling of Homs just before Lavrov’s arrival, killing 19 people in an onslaught they say has claimed more than 300 lives in the past five days. There were also reports from residents of shelling and fighting between government and rebel forces in Hama, another urban stronghold of anti-Assad sentiment.

Also on Tuesday, hundreds of e-mails from Assad’s office were leaked by the hacker group Anonymous. The e-mails were reportedly sent from Sheherazad Jaafari, a press attaché at Syria’s UN mission, to Assad’s media adviser Bouthaina Shaaban in advance of his December interview with Barbara Walters of ABC News.

In the e-mails, obtained by Haaretz, Jaafari reportedly wrote, “It is hugely important and worth mentioning that ‘mistakes’ have been done in the beginning of the crises because we did not have a well-organized ‘police force.’ American psyche can be easily manipulated when they hear that there are ‘mistakes’ done and now we are ‘fixing it.’

“It would be worth mentioning how your personality has been attacked and praised in the last decade according to the media,” she wrote, referring to Assad. “At one point H.E. [Assad] was viewed as a hero and in other times H.E. was the ‘bad guy.’ Americans love these kinds of things and get convinced by it.”

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Facebook and YouTube, Jaafari wrote, are important to “the American mindset” and Assad should mention that “the fact that Facebook and YouTube are open now – especially during the crisis – is important.”

Russian media quoted Lavrov as saying Assad had assured him he wanted an end to violence by both sides and an expanded Arab League monitoring mission, and that a referendum would be held on a new draft constitution, followed by free elections.

“President Assad informed [me] he will meet in the coming days with the commission that prepared a draft of the new constitution,” state-run Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported. “The work is finished, and now a date will be announced for a referendum on this important document for Syria.”

In remarks carried by state-run Rossiya-24 television, Lavrov said: “On the basis of this new Basic Law [constitution], general elections will be organized and conducted in which many parties will participate. The elections will be held on the basis of a new constitution in which there are no privileges or advantages for [Assad’s] Ba’ath Party.”

Sherkoh Abbas, president of the exiled Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria, said a referendum would be pointless.

“Russia is looking for a way out for the regime – some kind of transition. But a referendum on what? The people have made their choice – they’ve hit the streets,” he told The Jerusalem Post from Washington.

Syrian state television said the commission dealing with a new constitution had completed its work on Tuesday.

The state news agency SANA quoted Assad as saying Syria would cooperate with any effort to resolve its crisis that promotes stability in the country.

“Syria from the beginning has welcomed any efforts that back the Syrian solution to the crisis,” SANA quoted Assad as saying while meeting Lavrov. Lavrov told Interfax that Assad “assured us he was ‘completely committed to the task of stopping violence regardless of where it may come from,’” and was ready for dialogue with all political groups in Syria.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Lavrov and Foreign Intelligence Service chief Mikhail Fradkov had gone to Damascus because Moscow wanted to see “the swiftest stabilization of the situation in Syria on the basis of the swiftest implementation of democratic reforms whose time has come.”

Syrian state television showed hundreds of people gathering on a main Damascus highway to welcome Lavrov. They waved Syrian, Russian and Hezbollah flags and held up two Russian flags made out of hundreds of red, white and blue balloons.

In Paris, Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero explained France’s withdrawal of its ambassador.

“Faced with worsening repression led by the Damascus regime against its own population, French authorities have decided to recall their ambassador in Syria for consultations,” he said.

“We will not give up,” Foreign Minister Alain Juppé told a foreign affairs debate in the Senate. “We have two objectives: to intensify the pressure on the countries that use their veto and to add pressure on the Syrian regime, which is discredited. Its day are numbered and the veto in New York is not a blank check to continue [repression].”

European Union states prepared a new round of sanctions, EU diplomats said on Tuesday, with the focus on central bank assets and trade in precious metals, gold and diamonds.

Syrian first lady Asma Assad broke her 11-month silence with a letter in support of the government. In a letter to The Times of London, she wrote that her husband is the “president of Syria, not a faction of Syrians, and the first lady supports him in that role.

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“The first lady’s very busy agenda is still focused on supporting the various charities she has long been involved with and rural development as well as supporting the president as needed,” she reportedly wrote from an unknown location. “These days she is equally involved in bridging gaps and encouraging dialogue. She listens to and comforts the families of the victims of the violence.”

The Gulf Cooperation Council said its members were recalling their ambassadors from Damascus and expelling Syrian envoys from their own capitals, in response to surging violence.

“It is necessary for the Arab states... to take every decisive measure faced with this dangerous escalation against the Syrian people,” the Saudi-led bloc said in a statement, adding: “Nearly a year into the crisis, there is no glint of hope in a solution.”

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an ex-ally who has turned against Assad, described the UN vetoes as “a fiasco for the civilized world,” and said Ankara was preparing a new initiative with those who oppose the Syrian government.

Opposition activists said the fresh assault on Homs came after 95 people were killed on Monday in the city of one million, Syria’s third biggest. More than 200 were reported killed there by sustaining shelling on Friday night.

A further 19 people were killed and at least 40 were wounded in Tuesday’s barrage, activists said. Some reported fighting between army defectors and government forces trying move into areas the rebels hold in Homs.

Assad has said parliamentary elections will be held when the constitution is approved, but has also pledged to eradicate “terrorists” he associates with the violence.

Syria’s opposition, which rejected a Russian invitation for talks with Syrian officials in Moscow, says Assad’s promises of reforms have been discredited by persistent armed attacks on protests, in which the UN says 5,000 people have been killed.

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