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Russia Defends Its Diplomacy in Syria

BEIRUT, Lebanon — As reports of assaults by Syrian tanks and other forces at several major rebellious areas across Syria continued for a fifth day, Russia’s leaders tried Wednesday to fend off international criticism that they were doing nothing effective to stop the bloodshed, arguing that Moscow’s efforts were far more productive and balanced than the combined Western and Arab plan.

In Moscow, Sergey V. Lavrov, the foreign minister, stressed that Russia would seek to inaugurate open negotiations between the government and the opposition. Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, the once and likely future president, as well as Dmitri A. Medvedev, the incumbent, weighed in, trumpeting the Kremlin’s effort as unbiased while others were acting like “a bull in a china shop,” as Mr. Putin put it.

The Russians faced a chorus of voices wondering why Syrian government tanks and artillery continued to shell civilian neighborhoods in numerous towns and cities a day after Mr. Lavrov met with President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, the Syrian capital.

Both Britain and France noted that Mr. Assad had previously promised numerous visiting government leaders that he would end the violence, to no end.

“I think we have very little confidence in that,” Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain said when asked about Syrian promises to Russia, adding that by vetoing a United Nations Security Council resolution last Saturday condemning the violence, Russia and China had “set themselves against Arab opinion and world opinion.”

Alain Juppé, the French foreign minister, also expressed skepticism, while telling Parliament that the European Union would strengthen sanctions.

In Moscow, Mr. Lavrov voiced frustration with Western and Arab attitudes.

“Sometimes there is an impression that the more the Syrian leadership shows understanding about the necessity to move forward — albeit belatedly and under pressure — the more we see rejection of reciprocal steps on the opposite side,” Mr. Lavrov said.

Russia, clearly hoping to achieve a diplomatic master stroke while protecting an ally and arms customer, sees demands that Mr. Assad step down, before any negotiations, as unacceptable international interference in a country’s sovereign matters.

Mr. Lavrov said he had received assurances from Mr. Assad that he would open talks with the opposition, and he called on Western and Arab leaders to support such efforts, though he did not address the fractured nature of the opposition or suggest that Mr. Assad would halt assaults on civilians before any talks began. The Russian minister suggested that the Arab and Western players had been too quick to ignore the armed attacks against the government.

Mr. Putin weighed in on the Arab uprisings for the first time in months. “We, of course, condemn all violence, no matter its source, but do not conduct yourself like a bull in a china shop,” he said in a meeting with religious leaders in Moscow. “People need to be allowed to decide their fates independently.”

Mr. Putin has blamed the United States for instigating the protests against him that have erupted in recent weeks, and warned that the spirit of the Arab Spring revolts could spread to Russia. “In the last decade, unfortunately, a cult of violence has come to the fore in international affairs,” he said. “We cannot allow anything like this to come to our country.”

Mr. Medvedev discussed the Syrian crisis with Turkey’s prime minister on Wednesday, saying Moscow supported continuing diplomatic efforts as long as no country violated Syria’s sovereignty.

With no concrete diplomatic plan in sight, Navi Pillay, the United Nations humans rights chief, pressed the international community to act.

Noting activists’ reports of a sharp increase in attacks on the central city of Homs, Ms. Pillay issued a statement saying, “I am appalled by the Syrian government’s willful assault on Homs and its use of artillery and other heavy weaponry in what appear to be indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas.”

Ms. Pillay emphasized the “extreme urgency” needed to protect civilians, saying that the humanitarian situation in Homs and other areas was steadily deteriorating.

The aid group Doctors Without Borders issued a report on Wednesday accusing the government of blocking medical care for activists and others wounded in government attacks.

The failure of the Security Council resolution after a double Russian and Chinese veto “appears to have fueled the Syrian government’s readiness to massacre its own people in an effort to crush dissent,” Ms. Pillay said.

In violence that ranged from the Damascus suburbs through the hill town of Zabadani to the embattled city of Homs, at least 50 people were killed on Wednesday, according to overseas activists struggling to track the casualties of the clashes. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in London, said its count was likely to rise because of the continuous shelling and the lack of medical care.

The Syrian government allows only sporadic access by foreign news media or other observers, so independent confirmation is not possible.

Activists described a pattern in the attacks, with tanks surrounding the smaller towns, or in the case of Homs, entire neighborhoods, and firing at random, sometimes using small artillery, from a distance. The tanks avoid maneuvering into the warrens of streets beyond the major thoroughfares lest they be trapped and burned.

“They are trying to weaken the social cradle that has embraced the Free Syrian Army in those neighborhoods and to turn the residents against them,” said Omar Idilbi, a member of the Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, based in Lebanon.

Videos posted on YouTube showed scenes identified as Homs, with the bodies of one family crushed under heavy concrete blocks brought crashing down by the shelling.

In Inshaat, a neighborhood of Homs next to the more besieged Bab Amr quarter, one family reached by telephone said it had spent hours cowering in its basement to escape artillery rounds showering down outside.

Government troops requisitioned empty apartments that commanded a view over the neighborhood, said the wife in the family, speaking anonymously out of fear of repercussions.

Soldiers appeared at the family’s door asking for coffee and food. When she told them in response to their questions that she was afraid, they assured her that everything would be fine because Mr. Assad had issued orders to clean up the neighborhood within a week, she said.

In the official version of events reported by the government-run Syrian Arab News Agency, the violence was perpetrated by “armed terrorist groups” that used mortar shells to hit government targets in a number of neighborhoods.

“The authorities in the governorate are pursuing and clashing with these groups,” said the report, denying any humanitarian problem. “Hospitals in the province are functioning normally,” it quoted a medical source as saying.

In the mountain town of Zabadani, near Damascus, which the Free Syrian Army controlled briefly last month, one resident reached by telephone said the tanks had approached but while shelling had stayed about a kilometer away (about five-eighths of a mile).

“God is great, God is great; do you hear that? Do you hear?” the resident, Zein Nour, said during a satellite telephone interview as shells erupted in the background every five or six minutes. Since the assault began five days ago, shellfire has intensified during the day and diminished after dark, he said, and about 5,000 residents have fled.

“There is no life, no communications, no bread, no hospitals,” Mr. Nour said. “There is no Zabadani. There used to be a Zabadani, but now there is no Zabadani; there is just destruction.”

Authors:  and MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ (Neil MacFarquhar reported from Beirut, and Michael Schwirtz from Moscow. Hwaida Saad and an employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Beirut, and Alan Cowell from London.)

Published: February 8, 2012


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