Sunday, December 17, 2017

Russia welcomes any offer to give Assad refuge

BEIRUT — Russia would welcome any country's offer of safe haven for Syrian President Bashar Assad, but has no plans to make one of its own, Moscow's foreign minister said in the latest comments to suggest a growing distance between the two allies.

Sergey Lavrov's remarks on Friday night were among the clearest signs yet that Russia could be preparing for a Syria without Assad, as rebel pressure on the embattled leader intensifies. Over the past four weeks, fighting has reached Damascus, his seat of power, and rebels have captured a string of military bases.

Up to now, Russia has vetoed three Western-backed resolutions aimed at pressuring Syria's government to stop the violence that has killed more than 40,000 people over the past 21 months. While Russian leaders have given no concrete signs that stance has changed, their tone has shifted as rebels advance on the outskirts of the capital.

On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin distanced himself further than ever from the Syrian president, saying Russia does not seek to protect him and suggesting his regime is growing weaker.

Speaking to reporters late Friday, Lavrov reiterated Moscow's position that "it doesn't invite President Assad here," although he said other countries had asked Russia to convey their offer of safe passage to Assad. While he would not name the countries, Lavrov said Russia had responded by telling them to go directly to the Syrian leader.

"If there is anyone willing to provide him guarantees, they are welcome!" Lavrov said on board a plane returning from Brussels, where he attended a Russia-EU summit. "We would be the first to cross ourselves and say: "Thank God, the carnage is over! If it indeed ends the carnage, which is far from certain."

Syria's conflict started in March last year as an uprising against Assad, whose family has ruled the country for four decades. But the bloody crackdown that followed led rebels to take up arms, and the ensuing fighting transformed into a civil war.

The regime has come under added condemnation in recent weeks as Western officials raise concerns Assad might use chemical weapons against rebels in an act of desperation. Syria refuses to confirm or deny if it has such weapons but is believed to have nerve agents as well as mustard gas. It also possesses Scud missiles capable of delivering them.

Lavrov said the Syrian government has pulled its chemical weapons together to one or two locations from several arsenals across the country to keep them safe amid the rebel onslaught.

Lavrov added that U.N.-Arab League peace envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, would visit Moscow for talks before the year's end.

The conflict's sectarian dimension looked set to deepen at the weekend, as rebels threatened to storm two predominantly Christian towns in a central region if residents do not "evict" government troops they say are using the towns as a base. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the activist group which reported the rebel ultimatum on Saturday, said such an attack by rebels could force thousands of Christians from their homes.

Violence continued unabated on Saturday, particularly in the capital. The Observatory said a car bomb went off in the Damascus neighborhood of Qaboun, killing at least five people.

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