x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Russia urges Syria crisis summit

Russia calls for a meeting of countries with "real influence" on the situation in Syria, including Iran and Turkey, to salvage the disintegrating Kofi Annan peace plan.

BEIRUT // Russia called yesterday for a meeting of countries with "real influence" on the situation in Syria, including Iran and Turkey, to salvage the disintegrating Kofi Annan peace plan.

Deadly violence has continued almost unabated since a ceasefire brokered by the United Nations-Arab League special envoy was supposed to take effect in April.

The Local Coordination Committees, a network of Syrian activists, said at least 42 people were killed in fighting yesterday and army helicopters and tanks attacked rebel positions in the coastal province of Latakia for a second day.

"We believe it is necessary to assemble a meeting of states with real influence on different opposition groups. There are not that many," the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said in Beijing.

"The goal of such a meeting - different to the Friends of Syria meetings, which are devoted to supporting Syria's National Council and its radical demands - would be for all external players to agree, honestly and without double standards, to fulfil Kofi Annan's plan because we all supported it."

Meanwhile the Syrian president Bashar Al Assad's appointmen yesterday of a Baath party loyalist as the new prime minister was dismissed as "cosmetic" by Burhan Ghalioun, outgoing leader of the opposition Syrian National Council.

Riyad Hijab, the agriculture minister, has been given the task of forming a new government in a move seen by some as an indication of Mr Al Assad's hardening resolve against those still taking to the streets and demanding change in Syria.

"We expected Assad to play a game and appoint a nominal independent, but he chose a hard-core Baathist," said opposition campaigner Najati Tayyara.

Mr Hijab's appointment follows the May 7 parliamentary elections that were boycotted by most opposition groups and supporters of the 14-month uprising.

In Beijing, the Russian president Vladimir Putin has been leading a delegation to meet senior Chinese officials including the president, Hu Jintao. Both Russia and China have called for more support for the Annan plan, while blocking tougher action against the Syrian government and rejecting calls for regime change.

Mr Lavrov said opposition groups outside Syria "appeal to the world community more and more to bomb the Assad regime, to change this regime. This is very risky, I would even say it is a way that will bring the region to catastrophe."

However, there have been indications that the Russian position could be changing, with reports that Moscow may be more open to a political transition. A US State Department official confirmed that Fred Hof, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton's special adviser on Syria, was due in Moscow for talks today.

"We do not want to speak for the Russians, but Fred Hof, on his trip to Russia, will certainly lay out our concerns about President Assad and his regime," the official said.

"President Assad needs to step aside and allow for a democratic transition in Syria to continue unimpeded."


* Additional reporting by Omar Karmi, Foreign Correspondent, in Washington, Reuters, Agence France-Presse and Bloomberg