Sunday, May 27, 2018

Russian envoy calls Syria visit 'very productive'

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Russia's foreign minister visited Syria's top leaders in Damascus on Tuesday, at a moment when Western and Arab nations are withdrawing ambassadors and trying to isolate Syria diplomatically over its increasingly violent response to the 11-month-old popular uprising in the country.

The foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, was greeted by thousands of pro-government Syrians. He pronounced his visit as "very productive."

The Russian diplomatic effort came as the United States, which has criticized Russia's stance over the Syria crisis, suggested that it may provide "humanitarian aid to Syrians" without specifying how or to whom.

Russia, along with China, vetoed an Arab League-backed resolution at the U.N. Security Council on Saturday that called on President Bashar Assad to hand over some powers as part of a plan to defuse the crisis. The Russians insisted that the resolution amounted to outside interference in Syria's affairs.

At the same time, the Kremlin is sensitive to the perception that Russia had given Assad a green light to violently crush his political opponents. So Lavrov, and Mikhail Fradkov, the head of the Russian foreign intelligence service, were sent to Syria on Tuesday with what the Russians said was a proposal to end the crisis; its substance was not divulged.

"We have had a very productive visit with the leadership of Syria," Lavrov said after his meeting with Assad, according to the Ria Novosti news service. Lavrov also said Assad was prepared to hold talks with the opposition.

Further details were not disclosed, and it remained unclear whether Russia possessed the diplomatic clout to significantly influence the situation.

There was no immediate comment from Assad or from the voices of opposition in Syria.

The visit came a day after the United States temporarily closed its Damascus embassy. Germany, Spain, Belgium and France followed Britain in recalling their ambassadors.

Arab Persian Gulf countries, including Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, expelled Syrian ambassadors on Tuesday and recalled their ambassadors from Damascus for consultations.

Violence has surged the past week in Syria, in particular around the city of Homs, Syria's third largest. Syria's Interior Ministry said the assault on Homs would continue until all resistance is defeated, in a sign that the government believes that it can defeat the opposition by force.

Activists said at least 15 people were killed in violence around the country Tuesday.

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