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February 06, 2012

Russian FM Meets Syria's Assad as Violence Continues

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met in Damascus Tuesday with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and said afterward that Syria's government wants to resolve ongoing violence and work toward political reforms. The visit came as government forces pounded Syria's third-largest city of Homs for a fifth day.

Welcoming Lavrov

Syrian state television showed the Russian foreign minister's convoy entering Damascus amid what appeared to be large crowds greeting him, despite bad weather. The report called the turnout a “million-man welcome” for Lavrov. Opposition sources question the authenticity of the footage, claiming it was digitally altered to show more people than were actually present.

Government supporters waved Russian flags at Lavrov's convoy, while others waved pictures of Syria's embattled president. A large float of balloons representing the colors of the Russian flag drifted over the crowd in central Damascus.

Violence in Homs

Meanwhile, witnesses in Homs say government troops were for a fifth day shelling parts of the city, some controlled by rebel armed forces. Videos showed smoke rising over the city, and opposition sources claim there were numerous casualties. Hundreds of people have reportedly died since the shelling began on Friday.

Following his meeting with President Assad in Damascus, the Russian foreign minister told journalists he was trying to “resolve the political crisis” in Syria, “based on the Arab League plan.”  That plan calls for a national unity government to be formed under Syria's vice president, followed by early presidential and parliamentary elections.

The Russian foreign minister also indicated that President Assad was ready to hold a “dialogue with all political forces in Syria.” He said Assad was also prepared to “put an end to violence... no matter what its source.”

United Nations resolution

Hilal Khashan, who teaches political science at the American University of Beirut, believes that the Lavrov mission to Syria is an attempt by Moscow to "save face" after its Saturday veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Damascus.

“Russia is very embarrassed by the stand it took with regard to Syria, when they vetoed the United Nations resolution," said Khashan. "I think the reason behind the vote goes well beyond Syria. We need to understand the veto as part of the tug of war between Russia and China on one hand and the U.S. on the other. These two countries want to be included in deciding on major issues and they don't want to abandon the scene to the U.S. I believe Lavrov will be telling the Syrian regime to do something major by way of reforms to save the face of Russia, because they're quite embarrassed. But, to tell the truth, I don't expect much to come out of the visit."

Recalling ambassadors

The United States announced Monday that it has suspended operations at its embassy in Damascus and withdrawn its ambassador. France, Britain, Italy and Spain also indicated that they were recalling their ambassadors. Gulf Cooperation Council states, for their part, said that they were expelling Syria's ambassadors.