Sunday, March 25, 2012

Syria: Obama pledges 'non-lethal' aid, Russia says Annan offers last chance for Syria

Medvedev warned of dire consequences if Damascus ignored Annan's peace plan

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned on Sunday that Kofi Annan represented the last chance for avoiding a civil war in Syria and offered the UN-Arab League envoy Moscow's full support.

Medvedev's stark message to Moscow's traditional ally came only hours after US President Barack Obama announced plans to send "non-lethal" aid to the Syrian rebels and new waves of violence swept the battle-scarred country.

Russia has been facing mounting Western and Arab calls to step up pressure and stop delivering arms to President Bashar al-Assad's regime after a year of violence that the opposition says has claimed more than 9,100 lives.

Moscow on Wednesday backed a non-binding Security Council statement after vetoing two previous resolutions. But it did so only after making sure the text contained no implicit threat of further action should Assad fail to comply.

Medvedev on Sunday appeared to be aiming his words at Assad directly by warning of dire consequences if Damascus ignored Annan's peace plan.

"This may be the last chance for Syria to avoid a protracted and bloody civil war," Medvedev told Annan at a meeting held in Moscow's Vnukovo 2 airport before his departure for a summit in Seoul.

"We will be offering you our full support at any level at which we have a say," said Medvedev.

"We very much hope that your efforts have a positive outcome."

Annan replied that he expected Russia to play an "active" role in making sure that both sides follow the points of the UN Security Council-backed initiative.

The UN-Arab League envoy was expected in China on Tuesday to shore up backing for his efforts from the two UN Security Council members that had blocked previous efforts to condemn Assad's regime.

China has also expressed support for Annan's mission amid signs of quickly waning support for Assad from his traditional friends.

The UN Security Council-backed peace plan requires Assad to pull back his forces from protest cities and provide immediate humanitarian access to the thousands of civilians trapped inside.

It also makes no explicit demands on the opposition and calls for a gradual transition to a more representative government in which Assad's role remains undefined.

Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov wrote on Twitter after the Annan meeting that "the (Syrian) authorities appear to be ready to carry this out."

Moscow has in recent weeks tried to play down its sway over Assad by accusing him of "making a lot of mistakes" and noting that he often refused to listen to Russia's suggestions on ending the crisis.

Western powers have also doubted Assad's desire to negotiate and have been calling for his ouster since last year.

The Arab League's secretary general Nabil al-Arabi however said he did not expect a call for Assad's resignation to come up at the group's annual summit in Iraq later this month.

Pressure on Assad still mounted considerably when Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan emerged from extended talks in Seoul to announce their decision to back the delivery of non-combat supplies to the opposition.

Russia's foreign ministry countered immediately that such "support for one side of the conflict was unacceptable."

Yet the move was still expected to be backed formally at a "Friends of Syria" meeting scheduled for April 1 in Istanbul.

Obama said the United States and Turkey also agreed that "there should be a process" of transition to a "legitimate government" in Syria.

Erdogan underscored that 17,000 refugees had fled to Turkey from Syria and said: "we cannot be spectators" to the crisis.

Assad has thus far shown few signs of complying with Annan's peace plan.

At least 28 civilians were reported killed on Saturday and monitors reported new fighting stretching from the outskirts of the capital Damascus to Syria's northern border with Turkey.

Sunday witnessed "heavy shelling of Khaldiyeh, Hamidiyeh and Old Homs neighbourhoods by the regime's army, and explosions shook the whole city," said the Local Coordination Committees (LCC) of Syria.

Opposition fighters responded to their heavy recent losses by setting up a council to unify their ranks. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebels fired rocket-propelled grenades at a military facility near Damascus on Sunday.

One civilian was reported killed in the northern city of Hama on Sunday, while the LCC reported five troops and three mutinous soldiers killed in the southern town of Nawa.

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