Middle East

Syria's leadership making mistakes, says Russia

Injured woman cries as she recovers from injuries on 10 March 2012 after her house in Idlib, north Syria, is shelled
Image caption Russia has supported the Red Cross calls for a daily pause in fighting to allow for humanitarian access

Syria's leadership is making "a lot of mistakes", Russia's foreign minister has said, in a further sign Moscow may be hardening its stance on Damascus.

Sergei Lavrov said President Bashar al-Assad's regime had "responded incorrectly" from the start, when the protests were peaceful.

He also said Moscow was prepared to support a UN resolution backing its envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan.

It comes a day after Russia called for a daily humanitarian ceasefire.

Earlier on Tuesday, US campaign group Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused elements of Syria's armed opposition of carrying out serious human rights abuses, including kidnapping, torture and execution.

'Continuing efforts'

"We believe that the Syrian leadership responded incorrectly to the very first manifestations of the peaceful protests," Mr Lavrov told Kommersant FM radio in a pre-recorded interview.

"The Syrian leadership - despite the numerous promises it has made in response to our calls - is making a lot of mistakes. Unfortunately this is why the conflict is so acute."

Russia is a key ally of Syria and, along with China, has twice thwarted attempts to agree to a UN resolution condemning Mr Assad's actions.

But observers believe Moscow's patience with Damascus has been wearing thin.

Mr Annan, the UN-Arab League special envoy on Syria, has spent the last few weeks meeting all sides in the conflict - putting forward proposals to try and bring about an immediate ceasefire by both sides, access for humanitarian aid and the beginning of political dialogue.

Mr Lavrov, speaking at a news conference after meeting his Lebanese counterpart, said the UN Security Council should support the proposals, "not as an ultimatum, but as a basis of continuing efforts" by Mr Annan to find a solution to the crisis.

Following talks with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on Monday, Mr Lavrov's ministry put out a statement urging the Syrian government "and all armed groups who oppose it" to agree to ceasefires "without delay".

The ministry said it supported the ICRC's demands for a daily pause in fighting to evacuate the wounded from the worst affected areas and allow in food and medicine, and urged the Syrian authorities to give the organisation "access to all detained persons in Syria following the protests".

Meanwhile, HRW has called on Syria's main opposition coalition, the Syrian National Council (SNC), to condemn the abuses carried out by some of its supporters.

According to HRW, abuses include kidnapping for ransom, detention, and torture of security force members, government supporters, and people identified as members of pro-government militias, called Shabiha.

HRW has frequently accused Syria's government of abuse over the past year of conflict.

The UN says more than 8,000 people have been killed in the year-long uprising, while tens of thousands of people have fled their homes.

Image caption The Syrian government has been trying to suppress an uprising inspired by events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The UN says thousands have been killed in the crackdown, and that many more have been detained and displaced. The Syrian government says hundreds of security forces personnel have also died combating "armed terrorist gangs".
Image caption The family of President Bashar al-Assad has been in power since his father, Hafez, took over in a coup in 1970. The country underwent some liberalisation after Bashar became president in 2000, but the pace of change soon slowed, if not reversed. Critics are imprisoned, domestic media are tightly controlled, and economic policies often benefit the elite. The country's human rights record is among the worst in the world.
Image caption Syria is a country of 21 million people with a Sunni Muslim majority (74%) and significant minorities of Alawites - the Shia heterodox sect to which Mr Assad belongs - and Christians. Mr Assad promotes a secular identity for the country, but he has concentrated power in the hands of family and other Alawites. Protests have generally been biggest in Sunni-dominated areas.
Image caption Under the sanctions imposed by the Arab League, US and EU, Syria's two most vital sectors, tourism and oil, have ground to a halt in recent months. The IMF says Syria's economy contracted by 2% in 2011, while the value of the Syrian pound has crashed. Unemployment is high, electricity cuts trouble Damascus, and critical products like heating oil and staples like milk powder are becoming scarce.
Image caption Pro-democracy protests erupted in March 2011 after the arrest and torture of a group of teenagers who had painted revolutionary slogans on walls at their school in the southern city of Deraa. Security forces opened fire during a march against the arrests, killing four. The next day, the authorities shot at mourners at the victims' funerals, killing another person. People began demanding the overthrow of Mr Assad.
Image caption The government has tried to deal with the situation with a combination of minor concessions and force. President Assad ended the 48-year-long state of emergency and introduced a new constitution offering multi-party elections. But at the same time, the authorities have continued to use violence against unarmed protesters, and some cities, like Homs, have suffered weeks of intense bombardment.
Image caption The opposition is deeply divided. Several groups formed a coalition, the Syrian National Council (SNC), but it is dominated by the Sunni community and exiled dissidents. The SNC disagrees with the National Co-ordination Committee (NCC) on the questions of talks with the government and foreign intervention, and has found it difficult to work with the Free Syrian Army - army defectors seeking to topple Mr Assad by force.
Image caption International pressure on the Syrian government has been intensifying. It has been suspended from the Arab League, while the EU and the US have imposed sanctions. However, there has been no agreement on a UN Security Council resolution calling for an end to violence. Although military intervention has been ruled out by Western nations, there are increasing calls to arm the opposition.
Image caption Correspondents say a peaceful solution seems unlikely. Syria's leadership seems intent on crushing resistance and most of the opposition will only accept an end to the regime. Some believe the expected collapse of Syria's currency and an inability to pay salaries may be the leadership's downfall. There are fears, though, that the resulting chaos would be long-lasting and create a wider conflict.

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