After Putin victory, Russia's Syria stance remains

March 6, 2012 - 3:56 PM
Mideast Lebanon Syria

A Syrian child is seen with her family who fled from the Syrian town of Qusair near Homs, at the Lebanese-Syrian border village of Qaa, eastern Lebanon, Monday, March 5, 2012. More than a thousand Syrian refugees have poured across the border into Lebanon, among them families with small children carrying only plastic bags filled with their belongings as they fled a regime hunting down its opponents. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

LONDON (AP) — There was little sign Tuesday that Vladimir Putin's return as Russian president would soften the nation's stance on Syria, as Russia warned the West against "wishful thinking" and a top Moscow diplomat urged it to press the opposition to stop fighting Bashar Assad's regime.

British Prime Minister David Cameron told a panel of senior legislators in London that he had spoken late Monday with both Putin and outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev and pressed them on their opposition to international action on Syria, but that he did not sense a change.

Moscow last month blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Damascus' bloody crackdown on the opposition and accused Western powers of fueling the conflict by backing the rebels.

"I think these are early days, but I did not sense any sign of a shift," Cameron told lawmakers following the telephone talks.

Cameron said Putin had agreed that British and Russian foreign ministers would hold further discussion on the prospect of a U.N. resolution.

"We have to persuade them that it is absolutely essential that, at the very least, there is humanitarian access and a clear resolution about a stop to the violence," Cameron said.

Some observers had believed Russia might change its position once the presidential campaign, in which Putin tried to stir support by standing up to the West, was concluded. But the government offered little encouragement to that hope.

"We would like to warn our American and European partners from wishful thinking," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "Russia's stance on the Syrian settlement has never been subject to any short-term considerations and hasn't formed under the influence of electoral cycles, unlike that of some of our Western colleagues."

The statement reaffirmed that Russia will continue to strongly oppose any foreign military intervention in Syria, and the country's deputy foreign minister insisted that Russia is "deeply convinced that we are right."

"That is why we call on our partners not to adopt a hard-line stance, but to seek compromise, stimulate negotiations and a political process," Sergei Ryabkov told reporters.

Another official at the Foreign Ministry added that calls for a cease-fire should be directed not only at Assad's forces, but also the opposition. The official declined to give his name in line with ministry policy.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in his weekly address to party loyalists on Tuesday, renewed a call for the immediate opening of a humanitarian aid corridor, saying international pressure must be increased.

Erdogan acknowledged Syrian leader Bashar Assad's father, Hafez Assad, had escaped punishment for violence during his time, but said Bashar Assad would not.

"I would like to remind Bashar Assad: his father was not made to account for what he did in this world, but his son will sooner or later account for what he did, for the massacre and the oppression. This time the blood shed in Syrian cities will not go unpunished."

He also criticized the inaction at the U.N., but did not name Russia directly.

"Some countries' timid positions are strengthening the Syrian administration and encouraging massacres," he said.

Cameron said other countries should work with Syria's opposition to help them offer a more coherent alternative to Assad, but insisted that Britain was not prepared to consider supplying arms to the rebels.

"The right approach is to bring together the international community, put diplomatic pressure on the regime, work with the opposition to make sure they've got a proper outward face," Cameron said.

The British leader said nations opposed to Assad could also examine ideas on humanitarian corridors, safe havens inside Syria for refugees, or a cease-fire to allow civilians to flee — but warned that they would then need to be prepared to enforce them.

The British leader also acknowledged concern over the presence of extremists, including al-Qaida inspired fighters, within Syria.

"There is growing evidence that extremist elements want to get involved in Syria and there is some evidence that they may have got involved already, so there are clearly dangers there," Cameron said.

France said its embassy in Syria would close on Tuesday, while Spain's foreign ministry also said it intends to shutter its embassy, possibly as soon as Tuesday. Spain plans to maintain two or three diplomats in Syria as part of a European Union delegation.

Britain, Canada, and the United States have already closed their embassies in Damascus.

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Danilova reported from Moscow