x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Russia: Assad will not quit even if given safe passage

Bashar Al Assad will not quit even under pressure from allies in Moscow and Beijing, the Russian foreign minister said yesterday.

DAMASCUS //Bashar Al Assad will not quit even under pressure from allies in Moscow and Beijing, the Russian foreign minister said yesterday.

"Assad is not going anywhere, no matter what anyone tells him, be it China or Russia," Sergei Lavrov said.

Mr Lavrov said Arab states had asked Russia to convey offers of safe passage to the Syrian president in an effort to persuade him to leave.

"And we replied: 'Why do we have to do it? If you have these plans, go to him directly yourselves'," Mr Lavrov said.

Russia, the regime's main arms supplier, has used its United Nations Security Council veto on resolutions critical of Mr Al Assad because they amount to outside efforts at regime change.

Mr Lavrov said even guarantees of safe passage were unlikely to stop the war.

"Western intelligence services have serious fears and forecasts that the toppling of Assad would not resolve the problem, that fighting would move to a new stage," he said.

Intensive fighting has reached the suburbs of Damascus and, in truth, the battle lines have long been drawn, with neither side expecting to be offered any quarter by their opponents, despite various stillborn attempts by UN envoys to broker a negotiated solution.

That both sides believe they are locked in a fight to the end is unambiguously spelt in graffiti on walls in the capital's outer reaches. Regime loyalists write: "Assad or no one", while rebels write: "Bashar, don't leave, we're coming for you".

More than 44,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011, a majority of them civilians, according to human rights organisations. Artillery, air strikes, ballistic missiles, tanks, car bombs and knives have all been used in a struggle that UN investigators said this week was increasingly marred by atrocities and sectarianism.

No day passes without fatalities, and yesterday was no different, with 86 people reported killed by the evening, although numbers are impossible to confirm.

A car bomb exploded in Qaboun, a restive eastern district of Damascus, killing at least five people, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Qaboun encapsulates many of the complexities of the Syrian crisis, and is widely considered one of the more dangerous areas of the capital.

Key military bases are there, but so too are densely populated residential areas. Its population is a mix of Alawites and Sunni Muslims, regime security officers and ordinary civilians, staunch Assad loyalists and those seeking his overthrow - with a significant number of Palestinian refugees thrown in, caught between the two sides.

Parts of Qaboun are in regime hands, but other areas are essentially held by the rebel Free Syrian Army, which, residents say, conducts regular operations in the area as it attempts to open a gateway into the heart of Damascus.

Sana, the official news agency, said troops had repelled an attack yesterday on a military facility in Shabaa, on the eastern edge of Damascus, in which the army unit's commanding officer was killed.

It also said Haidar Al Smoudi, a cameraman with the state-run Syrian TV, was killed by gunmen in Damascus on Friday.

Despite the failure of diplomatic efforts to even stem, let alone halt, the bloodshed, the UN peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is expected to hold talks with Mr Al Assad in Damascus soon, although no date has been specified. Russia has also invited Mr Brahimi to Moscow for discussions.

A major international concern over the deepening Syria crisis has been chemical weapons stockpiles. Damascus has not formally acknowledged having such an arsenal, but Russia, which has military advisers in Syria, has sought to allay concerns they might be used by the regime or seized by rebels as they gain territory.

Mr Lavrov said Mr Al Assad's chemical weapons were currently "under control", although he criticised the western backers of Syria's opposition forjeopardising safeguards and making it more likely chemical arms would be taken by Islamist militants.

 

psands@thenational.ae