Russia says Assad wants dialogue; Syria keeps shelling as nations recall envoys

DAMASCUS, Syria — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is “completely committed” to stopping fighting in the country, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday after discussions on the mounting violence.

Lavrov’s meeting with Assad came as the Syrian military continued its bombardment of the restive city of Homs for a fifth day. France and Italy recalled their ambassadors for consultations over the worsening situation.

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Syrian forces renewed their assault on the flash-point city of Homs on Tuesday as Russia's foreign minister held talks in Damascus with President Bashar Assad. (Feb. 7)

Syrian forces renewed their assault on the flash-point city of Homs on Tuesday as Russia's foreign minister held talks in Damascus with President Bashar Assad. (Feb. 7)

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Government forces shelled the central Syrian city of Homs on Monday, striking a makeshift medical clinic and residential areas in the third day of a new assault on the epicenter of the country's uprising, activists said. (Feb. 6)

Government forces shelled the central Syrian city of Homs on Monday, striking a makeshift medical clinic and residential areas in the third day of a new assault on the epicenter of the country's uprising, activists said. (Feb. 6)

Members of the Gulf Cooperation Council — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar — also announced that they were recalling their ambassadors and were expelling Syria’s diplomats. “Nearly a year into the crisis, there is no glint of hope in a solution,” the council said in a statement.

Leaders of the 11-month-old uprising are demanding that Assad cede power and allow a transition to a democratic government. There have been attempts at dialogue, but most opposition groups now reject the idea of talks, after months of violence that the United Nations estimates has caused more than 5,400 deaths.

The Obama administration said it was not considering arming the Syrian opposition, despite calls to do so by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and others. Instead, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the administration would join with other countries to increase economic and political pressure on Assad, and was “exploring the possibility of providing humanitarian aid to Syrians.”

Without offering details, Carney said U.S. officials were seeing “a lot of indications . . . of interest by senior officials within the military and the government in separating themselves from the regime. So we believe that that pressure is having an impact.”

The United States and most Western powers have said Assad must leave power, while the Arab League has called for a managed transition to be undertaken by Syrian officials.

Lavrov, who arrived in Damascus just days after Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Syria’s treatment of protesters, said Assad was ready to hold a referendum on a new constitution and start a dialogue with the opposition, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency.

Speaking in Moscow on Wednesday, Lavrov said Assad wants his vice president, Farouk al-Sharaa, to hold the talks with the opposition. He blamed both the Syrian government and the opposition for the violence. “On both sides there are people that aim at an armed confrontation, not a dialogue,” the Associated Press quoted Lavrov as saying. His comments came as activist groups said Syrian troops continued bombing parts of Homs on Wednesday.

Assad has blamed armed gangs and terrorists for the violence. Officials told Syrian state media Tuesday that the military is conducting operations to retake control of Homs. Activists say those operations have killed more than 300 civilians since Friday.

Lavrov called on Western nations to do what they can to persuade the Syrian opposition to refrain from violence. “We shall continue working with various opposition groups,” Lavrov said, according to Interfax. “But those who have greater influence on them than Russia should work with them as well.”

The Obama administration dismissed the idea of a referendum, saying it was the same offer Assad had been making for months. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will “reserve judgment” on Lavrov’s trip to Damascus until she can speak to him, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

Although the U.N. Security Council resolution that was vetoed Saturday was based on an Arab League plan for political transition, Lavrov told reporters that both Russia and Syria supported an expanded effort by the group to monitor events in Syria.

The United States closed its embassy in Syria on Monday, citing the uncertain security conditions. Britain has summoned its ambassador home for talks.

In Damascus, Lavrov was greeted by cheering crowds as he was driven from the airport into the city, Syrian television showed.

“Every leader of every country must be aware of his share of responsibility. You are aware of yours,” Russian state media quoted Lavrov as saying to Assad.

Protest leaders and experts on Syria said the Assad-Lavrov talks are unlikely to ease the situation — especially as the crackdown continues and Assad opponents become better organized and gain access to more weapons.

“It’s like one side negotiating with itself,” said Dima Moussa, a member of the largely expatriate opposition group the Syrian National Council. “The Russians have not shown anything that indicates they care about the demands of the Syrian people.”

In Homs, activists in the opposition-dominated neighborhood of Baba Amr reported new shelling Tuesday. Rights groups reported that 19 people were killed.

Staff writers Karen DeYoung in Washington and Will Englund in Moscow contributed to this report.

 
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