By Steve Gutterman
By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW, April 18 (Reuters)
Morocco and a Syrian opposition group urged Russia on Wednesday to press President Bashar al-Assad’s government to adhere to a ceasefire and pull back forces in accordance with U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan.
The separate calls on Russia to use its influence on Damascus to ensure a fragile ceasefire takes hold came in visits to Moscow by Morocco’s foreign minister and members of the Syrian National Coordination Body, a centrist opposition group.
A week-old truce Assad pledged to enforce has held in some parts of Syria, but in areas where the opposition is strong the army has continued to attack and fight rebels, using heavy weapons in violation of a promise to pull back.
“We continue to wish Annan’s mission success and believe the Russian Federation can play an effective role in convincing the Syrian government to respect the ceasefire regime and the conditions for the withdrawal of forces from cities,” Moroccan Foreign Minister Saad-Eddine Al-Othmani told a news conference after talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
A member of the National Coordination Body delegation, which met Lavrov and other officials and lawmakers during a three-day visit ending on Wednesday, also said Moscow’s role was crucial.
“Russia is the only state which can make the necessary pressure on the Syrian regime to implement the first part of Kofi Annan’s road map. And for that, they must really be very strong and very hard with the Syrian regime if it refuses to implement the first step,” Haytham Manna said in English.
Manna told reporters Moscow’s response was “more positive than we expected, and I hope that in the next days we will have real steps to support Kofi Annan’s road map.”
Russia has pledged its full support for Annan’s peace plan and last week called on the Syrian government to step up implementation, but has also put much of the blame for the bloodshed on the opposition forces.
Lavrov reiterated Russia’s calls on Western and Arab states to ensure government opponents comply with the ceasefire.
Citing media reports, he said there was “more and more evidence that the armed opposition is trying to … provoke the renewal of violence in order to break the ceasefire” and ensure Annan’s plan collapses in hopes of setting the stage for foreign military intervention.
Russia adamantly opposes military intervention in Syria. Moscow says NATO used a U.N. resolution authorising operations to protect civilians in Libya to help rebels overthrow Muammar Gaddafi last year and has vowed not let it happen in Syria.
Syria has given post-Soviet Russia its firmest foothold in the Middle East, buying billions of dollars’ worth of weapons and hosting a maintenance and supply facility that is Russia’s only warm-water naval port outside the former Soviet Union.
Russia has provided Syria with weapons and shielded Assad by blocking two U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning his government for a crackdown in which the United Nations says its forces have killed more than 9,000 people since March 2011.
Meetings with opponents and criticism of Assad indicate Moscow is hedging its bets and hoping to preserve influence in Syria if Assad is forced out, but some analysts suspect Russia is using its clout as a veto-wielding permanent Security Council member to help the government play for time.
Russia approved a Security Council resolution on Saturday authorising deployment of an advance team of unarmed observes to monitor the ceasefire, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon is expected to formally propose a 250-strong mission to the Security Council on Wednesday.
Lavrov said that only U.N. monitors have the authority to assess implementation of Annan’s plan, and suggested Ban had been dragging his feet.
“We again call on the U.N. secretary-general not to hold off any longer on the introduction … of specific proposals on parameters on the observer mission,” he said.