Moscow says ally Assad too slow at reforms

March 14, 2012 - 1:56 PM
Russia Syria

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov walks at the State Duma, the lower parliament chamber, Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, March 14, 2012. Lavrov says Moscow is providing Syria with weapons to fend off external threats but has no intention to use military force to protect Syrian President Bashar Assad. (AP Photo/Misha Japaridze)

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia's foreign minister on Wednesday showed irritation with its longtime ally Syria, saying Bashar Assad has been slow to implement long-needed reforms and warning that the conflict in the Arab state could spiral out of control.

Sergey Lavrov's comments to the Russian parliament did not appear to hint at a change in Russia's policy toward Syria, which has come under wide criticism. Moscow has protected Syria, a key ally since the Soviet times, from U.N. sanctions over the Assad regime's bloody suppression of a yearlong uprising, in which the U.N. says over 7,500 have been killed.

But the statement was notable for its public frustration with Assad's government, which depends on Russia for weapons.

"Regrettably, he hasn't always followed our advice in his activities," Lavrov said. "He has approved useful laws reviving the system and making it more pluralistic. But it has been done after a long delay, and the proposals about launching a dialogue also have been slow to come. Meanwhile, the armed confrontation is expanding and its inertia may sweep and engulf all."

Lavrov said none of the weapons Russia currently is supplying to Syria could be used against the protesters and that the arms trade is aimed at helping Syria fend off external threats. Russia backs Assad's claim that the uprising is a foreign conspiracy and that weapons and militants have been brought into Syria from abroad.

Russia has blocked U.N. Security Council measures aimed at putting pressure on Assad, saying the opposition forces must also be pressured to stop fighting. Russia has vowed to block any U.N. resolution that could pave the way for a replay of what happened in Libya, where NATO action helped oust late dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Lavrov insisted that Moscow's stance was rooted in respect for the international law, not a desire to defend its client.

"We aren't standing up for the regime or specific personalities, we are defending the international law that demands that internal conflicts are settled without foreign interference," Lavrov told the parliament.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Wednesday called on the international community, including Russia, to work together to stop the "humanitarian tragedy" in Syria. French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged the creation of humanitarian corridors to allow refugees out and aid into Syria and denounced Assad as "behaving like a murderer."

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Assad "is going to go down, whether it's a matter of days or a matter of weeks."

"He can run around and use this horrific violence all he wants, but it's not going to change the fact that his country no longer supports his leadership and certainly doesn't support these tactics," she said.

President Barack Obama said the prospect of international military intervention in Syria is premature and could lead to a civil war. Obama said he and British Prime Minister David Cameron, who was on a visit to Washington, discussed possible "immediate steps" their countries could take in order to make sure humanitarian aid is being provided to the Syrian people.

Meanwhile, efforts by Kofi Annan, the international envoy charged with trying to help end the violence in Syria, have shown little progress.

The former U.N. secretary-general had questions about the response from Syrian authorities to his proposals "and is seeking answers," his spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said Wednesday.

"Given the grave and tragic situation on the ground, everyone must realize that time is of the essence," Fawzi said. "As he said in the region, this crisis cannot be allowed to drag on."

Annan, the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy, visited Syria over the weekend and had two meetings with Assad. U.N. diplomats said Annan will brief the Security Council by videoconference on Friday morning.

Fawzi gave no details on the proposals or response, but in Washington, U.S. officials said the Syrian reply to Annan was unacceptable, notably because it does not include any reference to the demands of the Arab League for a political transition that would see Assad step down.

One U.S. official familiar with the matter said it was "not positive but not unexpected either."

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because Annan has not publicly released the response, said it did not mention steps toward a transition, an end to government attacks on the opposition or the withdrawal of troops from civilian areas.

The French leader, whose country was Syria's one-time colonial ruler, urged humanitarian corridors to allow refugees out and aid into the country.

"We must obtain humanitarian corridors, and for that we must unblock the Russian veto and Chinese veto" at the U.N. Security Council, Sarkozy told Europe-1 radio.

The U.N. Security Council has been considering a new resolution on Syria. Russia and China have vetoed two previous resolutions, saying they were unbalanced and demanded an end to government attacks only, not the opposition.

"The French army can in no way intervene" in Syria without U.N. backing, Sarkozy said. France has been active in efforts to end fighting in Syria, and was a leading player in the U.N.-mandated, NATO-led airstrike campaign in Libya.

Italy said Wednesday it has closed its embassy in Syria and recalled its staff in reaction to continued crackdown on civilians by government troops. The Foreign Ministry reaffirmed "the strongest condemnation of the unacceptable violence by the Syrian regime against its own citizens."

Britain, Canada, France, Spain and the United States have each announced the closure of their embassies to protest the crackdown.

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Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Matthew Lee in Washington, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, Angela Charlton in Paris and Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara contributed to this report