March 24, 2012
March 24, 2012
As Syrian peace envoy Kofi Annan heads to Moscow on Saturday to gauge how far Russia is willing to push its key Arab ally after it finally joined a U.N. call on regime forces to pull back from protest cities, activists say that Syrian troops have fired mortar rounds at a neighborhood in Homs.
Activists said Syrian troops have fired at Khalidiyeh, the rebel-held neighborhood in the central city of Homs, in apparent preparation to storm the area.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, who is head of the British-Based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the heavily-populated Khaldiyeh neighborhood has been shelled since early Saturday.
The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, posted a video on its Facebook page showing smoke billowing from a residential area it said was in Khaldiyeh.
The neighborhoods, one of Homs’ largest, has been under rebel control for months.
Homs has seen some of the heaviest fighting in Syria’s year-long uprising. Government forces crushed a rebel stronghold in Baba Amr neighborhood on March 1.
Meanwhile, Annan will meet President Dmitry Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Sunday before flying to China, the other U.N. Security Council member resisting global efforts to condemn Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The U.N.-Arab League envoy will be carrying with him the embattled leader’s answer to a peace plan under which Syria could begin a “political transition” to a representative government, with no specifically defined role for Assad.
Moscow backed Wednesday’s non-binding Security Council statement in support of the initiative only after making sure it contained no implicit threat of further action should Assad fail to comply.
Washington’s U.N. ambassador Susan Rice admitted that the U.N. call represented only “a modest step” towards ending a year of bloodshed that the opposition says has claimed more than 9,100 lives.
But it came amid growing signs that Moscow was beginning to lose patience with Assad, despite his commitment to massive new Russian arms purchases and the granting of key naval access to the Mediterranean Sea.
A top Kremlin-linked lamwker said Assad should treat the U.N. statement as “an insistent recommendation” whose implementation would determine the future course of relations between the two countries.
“Assad has to take the first step: he must pull the Syrian army out of large cities,” the lower house of parliament’s foreign affairs chief Mikhail Margelov said on Thursday.
“Russia’s future position on the conflict will depend on how successfully (the Syrian government) complies with the provisions spelled out in the Security Council statement,” said Margelov.
But analysts have warned that Russia’s interests in Syria are too important for it to allow Western and regional powers to independently dictate the battle-scarred nation’s fate.
Russia not only sells billions of dollars in arms to Syria but also relies on Damascus to lobby its interests in a region where Moscow has lost much of its influence in recent years.
Margelov echoed earlier comments by Lavrov, urging Assad to “urgently correct the numerous mistakes that he ? in Russia’s official opinion ? has made.”
But no Russian official has gone so far as to say that Assad has lost his legitimacy ? a stance taken by most Western powers since last year.
“Assad’s position is difficult,” one Kremlin official told Interfax on Friday. “I do not know whether he has prospects or not. But no one is predicting another 10 years in power for him.”
The dramatic shift in tone but persistent refusal to join international calls for Assad to go means that “Russia is not wedded to this regime,” said Maxim Yusin, foreign affairs correspondent of the daily newspaper Kommersant.
By Al Arabiya