BEIRUT — Syrian security forces maintained calm Monday in areas of Damascus rocked by demonstrations over the weekend, as President Bashar al-Assad reiterated that ongoing violence was the result of armed terrorist groups funded by “foreign parties.”
After a meeting between Assad and Alexei Pushkov, a member of the Russian parliament, Syrian state media reported that Assad had condemned armed opposition groups for blocking a political solution to the country’s crisis. Assad’s opponents say the crisis is the result of a brutal crackdown on an initially peaceful protest movement, now 11 months old.
Officials from Russia, which remains a staunch ally of Assad, have urged reform and criticized calls from many Western leaders for Assad to step down as interference in Syrian affairs.
“Some influential big states” have been meddling in Syrian affairs, using humanitarian aid as a cover, said Pushkov, according to the Syrian Arab News Agency.
His words, echoed in articles in newspapers of Assad’s other main backer, China, came after a nonbinding U.N. General Assembly resolution was passed last week, calling for an end to violence in Syria, and as preparations continue for a meeting Friday in Tunisia of a “Friends of Syria” group.
The meeting, to include international officials and Syrian opposition figures, is endorsed by the Arab League, the 22-member group of states that has sought to end the violence in Syria by escalating sanctions and diplomatic pressure on Assad’s government. The group should “put extra pressure” on the Syrian government, the league’s leader, Nabil Elaraby, told reporters in Cairo on Monday.
Elaraby added, however, that he had reason to believe that Russia and China, which vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the Syrian government early this month, might be shifting their attitudes. “There are indications coming from China and to some extent from Russia that there may be a change in position,” Elaraby said.
As international friction continued, activists reported that military reinforcements were heading toward the city of Homs, a center of armed protest that the Syrian military has been heavily shelling for more than two weeks.
“They are expecting a ground attack at any time,” said Dima Moussa, a U.S.-based member of the prominent Syrian National Council opposition group.
In Damascus, the capital, a heavy security presence quelled unrest in suburban areas where tens of thousands had gathered over the weekend to protest the deaths of demonstrators and call for the ouster of the regime, according to activists.
The Local Coordination Committees, a collection of opposition groups within Syria, said three protesters were killed by security forces Friday in demonstrations in the Mezzeh area of Damascus, prompting a rally of unprecedented size Saturday in the upmarket enclave, home to a number of embassies and government buildings.
One anti-Assad journalist going by the nom de guerre Moaz al-Shami, reached by Skype, said the turnout showed that the capital, whose urban elite has seemed less inclined to protest than rural and provincial Syrians, was turning against the government.
“Always the regime gives the message to the world that Damascus and Aleppo are with Assad,” Shami said. “Some of them support Assad, and we cannot ignore that, but at the same time most Damascene people are against Assad — and not just in Mezzeh.”
Although the area has been secured by security forces and plainclothes officials, Shami said he thinks that the intermittent protests across Damascus will continue to grow steadily in the weeks to come.