BEIRUT: In a clear defense of President Bashar Assad, Russia has expressed its concerns to the Arab League over the crisis in Syria, saying it had reports the opposition was becoming more militant and sought to foil an initiative by the Arab body to resolve the eight-month crisis.
In a letter by Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov, obtained by The Daily Star Friday, Moscow also criticized the United States for urging Syrians not to hand over weapons to Syrian authorities, which one rights watchdog has accused of committing “crimes against humanity.”
“We call upon all influential sides to take similar steps [commit to the understanding of the Arab League initiative] through contacting opposition groups, including the Syrian National Council, in order to stop acts of violence committed by extremists and armed groups who are from the opposition,” Lavrov told Nabil Elaraby, head of the Arab League.
The Russian official said Moscow had also information about an increase in arms smuggling into Syria and “the use of these weapons against government forces police stations and security agencies.”
Syrians have faced what rights groups describe as a brutal crackdown by Damascus in a bid to quash protesters calling for reforms in the tightly controlled state, which has been under Baath Party rule for almost five decades.
Earlier this month the Arab League managed, after initial resistance from Damascus, to get Syria on board an initiative it hoped would help put an end to the bloodshed, which several Arab states, like Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states had strongly criticized.
Syria agreed on Nov. 2 to the plan, which would see a withdrawal of the Syrian Army from streets, an end to the crackdown on protesters, the release of all political prisoners and the launch of dialogue between the opposition and the government within two weeks.
However, the Arab League soon criticized Damascus saying it had failed to implement most of the conditions set in the peace bid.
In the statement to the Arab League chief, Lavrov described the Syrian Army as taking a defensive position and cited reports of aggression committed by extremist gunmen, a term often used by Damascus as a rationale for its crackdown on protesters, which the U.N. says some 3,500 people, mostly civilians, have perished in.
“We are concerned with news of ongoing aggression by extremist gunmen such as those which took place in Homs, Hama and Idlib in recent days with the provocative aim of forcing security agencies and the army in Syria to retaliate, and then launching a campaign via international media outlets,” Lavrov said in the statement.
“Representatives of the opposition ... admit that they are adopting a policy to foil the agreement to pull out military units from the streets of Syrian cities along with the entire Arab League plan,” Lavrov added.
The top Russian official also criticized the United States for advising Syrians not to comply with an arms amnesty called for by Damascus.
His statement came a day after Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem issued a complaint to the Arab League of American interference in Syria. Moallem conveyed his concern that the “U.S. incitement is paving the way for an Arab-backed foreign intervention in Syria," Syrian state-run news agency SANA quoted the Syrian official as telling Elaraby.
“What also concerned us was that after the Syrian authorities called on gunmen to hand over their arms and to benefit from the amnesty announced for the period between Nov. 5 and Nov. 12, the spokesperson of the U.S. State Department announced that Washington did not recommend the acceptance of this proposal,” Lavrov told Elaraby in his statement to the Arab League.
U.S. President Barack Obama, along with other Western allies, has called on Assad to step down and has imposed a series of rounds of sanctions on Damascus in the hope of curbing the violence.
In early October both Russia and China, two permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, vetoed the passing of a resolution condemning the crackdown by Damascus.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said Friday Syrian forces had tortured and killed civilians in the rebellious province of Homs earlier in the week in an assault that indicated crimes against humanity, and urged the Arab League to suspend Syria's membership from the organization.
In the letter to the Elaraby, Lavorv said Moscow had greeted the Arab League intiative for Syria positively and said all of its clauses needed to be implemented.
“The implementation of all items of the Arab League’s plan opens the way for a peaceful solution to the problems that the Syrians are encountering through national dialogue away from violence and foreign interference,” Lavrov said.
The Russian official noted that the first demand in the intiative called on all sides to end the violence.
“This demand is addressed to all sides,” Lavrov said, adding that Moscow was “dealing with Damascus and we urge Syrian authorities to closely commit to the understanding reached in the framework of the Arab League.”
“Given that you received a delegation from the Syrian National Council on Nov. 5, I consider it suitable to call upon you to make additional efforts so that the Syrian opposition adopts a position up to responsibility and supports in word and deed the Arab League initiative which allows the peaceful political settlement of the Syrian crisis by the Syrians themselves.
“I am convinced that launching the political process inside Syria with the participation of all sides, the active role of the Arab League and the coordinated efforts of the international community will end the bloodshed, violence and guarantee that Syria moves forward towards peaceful development and democracy."