Syrian forces renewed their bombardment of Homs yesterday as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Damascus for talks aimed at pressing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to end a bloody crackdown on a popular revolt and carry out reforms.
Activists said the fresh assault on Homs came after 95 people were killed on Monday in the city of 1 million people, a hub of protest and armed opposition against al-Assad. More than 200 were reported killed there on Friday night.
“The bombardment is again concentrating on Baba Amro [district of Homs]. A doctor tried to get in there this morning, but I heard he was wounded,” Mohammad al-Hassan, an activist in Homs, said by satellite phone. “There is no electricity and all communication with the neighborhood has been cut.”
Authorities say the military is fighting “terrorists” in Homs bent on dividing and sabotaging the country. State media said “tens” of terrorists and six members of the security forces were killed in clashes there on Monday.
Lavrov and Russian Foreign Intelligence Service chief Mikhail Fradkov arrived in Damascus to meet al-Assad, the foreign ministry in Moscow said, three days after a Russian-Chinese veto of an Arab-backed UN resolution on Syria caused outrage.
Moscow and Beijing were the only members of the 15-member UN Security Council to vote against the resolution backing an Arab League call for Assad to yield power and start a political transition. The double veto prompted unusually undiplomatic Western criticism, which Lavrov said verged on “hysteria.”
At yesterday’s talks, Russia could wield rare leverage with Syrian officials thanks to longtime political and military ties.
Russia’s foreign ministry said Lavrov and Fradkov went to Damascus because Moscow sought “the swiftest stabilization of the situation in Syria on the basis of the swiftest implementation of democratic reforms whose time has come.”
Syrian state television showed hundreds of people gathering on a main Damascus highway to welcome Lavrov. They were waving Syrian, Russian and Hezbollah flags and held up two Russian flags made out of hundreds of red, white and blue balloons.
Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby said he spoke to Lavrov on Monday and said the foreign minister would present an initiative to Damascus.
Asked if he thought it could end the crisis, he replied: “They believe so.”
Russia, seeking to retain a foothold in the Middle East centered on its strategic ties with Damascus, may be torn between trying to shore up Assad and seeking his exit. It could also take a middle path, trying to buy time by counseling the government to make some concessions and reduce the bloodshed.
“I think that now, after Russia imposed a veto, Lavrov [is] traveling to tell Assad that we did everything possible,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs. “Now the main task for Lavrov is to tell Assad that if there is no visible change in Syria, then regardless of the Russian position, he should be bracing for external military measures.”
Russia argued that Saturday’s draft UN resolution was one-sided and would have amounted to taking the side of Assad’s opponents in a civil war. China’s veto of the measure followed Russia’s lead, analysts and diplomats said.
Catherine al-Talli, a senior member of the opposition Syrian National Council, said the military assault on Homs appeared to be designed to show Moscow that Assad was in control and could serve until his term expires in 2014.