|Anti-government protesters hold signs calling for an end to the Assad regime’s crackdown. (AFP Photo)|
DAMASCUS/BEIRUT/ANKARA/MOSCOW: Syrian forces killed at least 23 protesters after tens of thousands of people flooded the streets after Friday prayers, activists said, as Russia and Turkey rejected Western calls for the Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down.
Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, is facing the most serious international isolation of his rule. The U.S. and its European allies Thursday demanded he leave power.
But both Russia and Turkey Friday dismissed calls for Assad to quit, offering the Syrian leader rare support despite a damning U.N. report Thursday on his “apparent shoot to kill” policy.
A Russian Foreign Ministry source said Russia opposes U.S. and European calls for Assad leave power and believes he needs more time to implement promised reforms, while in Turkey.
An official source told AFP Turkey also believes it is “too soon” to call for Assad’s departure.
“We are not there yet. First and foremost the people of Syria must tell Assad to go. This has not been heard in the streets of Syria,” the Turkish official said.
“The Syrian opposition is not united and we haven’t seen yet a collective call from Syrians to tell Assad to go, like in Egypt and Libya.”
Turkey’s National Security Council (MGK), which brings together top civilian and military officials, discussed Ankara’s strategy on Syria Thursday but fell short of making an open appeal for Assad to resign. It instead repeated calls for an immediate end to violence.
“It has been emphasized once again that the use of violence and force against civilians must be stopped immediately,” the MGK said in a statement, released late Thursday.
It said a democratic change must take place in compliance with the “legitimate demands of the friendly and brotherly Syrian people,” according to Anatolia news agency.
A Russian official, quoted in Interfax news agency said: “We do not support such calls and believe that it is necessary now to give President Assad’s regime time to realize all the reform processes that have been announced.”
The position sets Russia firmly against the West, which has stepped up pressure on Assad five months into a violent government crackdown against protesters seeking an end to his rule.
Russia, which holds veto power as a permanent Security Council member, has said it would not support a resolution on Syria but did back an Aug. 3 statement that criticized the violence and called for the clampdown to stop.
Moscow said this week that in the absence of formal sanctions it would continue its arms sales to Syria. Russia, which has a naval maintenance facility in Syria, has repeatedly urged Assad to carry out reforms and has taken a more positive view of the government’s actions than Western nations have.
“Quite a lot has been done on this path,” Interfax quoted the Foreign Ministry source as saying.
“Most important is Assad’s announcement yesterday that they are stopping all military operations. This is a very important move and it bears witness to the intention of Assad and the Syrian authorities to proceed on the path of reforms.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry said the announcement of an amnesty for political prisoners, the lifting of decades-old emergency rule and a plan to hold parliamentary elections by the year’s end were among the government’s moves aimed at reform. A group of Russian politicians, experts and journalists were planning Saturday to travel to Damascus on a reconnaissance mission, one of the informal delegation’s members told AFP, saying media reports out of the country were incomplete.
Russian senator Aslambek Aslakhanov added the delegation would seek to meet both Assad and the opposition.
On the political front, a group of “revolutionary blocs” formed a coalition Friday vowing to bring down the regime and paid tribute to more than 2,000 civilians killed in a crackdown on protesters since mid-March.
Military operations have subsided in the past few days, following a fresh crackdown on major flashpoint cities that started at the beginning of the month to root out anti-government protesters. But persistent gunfire and shootings, along with Friday’s killings, underscore the difficulty of any kind of diplomatic pressure achieving results in the absence of any appetite for military intervention.
Human rights groups said Assad’s forces have killed nearly 2,000 people since the uprising erupted in mid-March. A high-level U.N. team recommended Thursday that the violence in Syria be referred to the International Criminal Court over possible crimes against humanity.
The U.N.’s chief human rights official said Friday that there was evidence of widespread human rights abuses including torture and killings by Assad’s forces
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in an interview with France 24 television that her body had drawn up a list of 50 Syrians in senior positions that she said were responsible for violent repression.
She said she had asked the U.N. Security Council to refer the allegations to the International Criminal Court but admitted that she was “not optimistic” as many member states would prefer to put Damascus under diplomatic pressure.
Instead, she said, the U.N. Human Rights Council would meet Monday to see if member states on this less senior body could agree on action to take.
ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said he has received reports of atrocities in Syria but has no jurisdiction “at this stage” to open an investigation because Damascus does not recognize the court.
He said he could begin investigating at the request of the U.N. Security Council. Syria’s U.N. ambassador said a U.N. humanitarian assessment team will arrive in Damascus Saturday.
The International Committee of the Red Cross also said Friday it is optimistic Syrian authorities will grant the humanitarian organization access to all detainees in the country “within weeks.”
The number of protesters Friday appeared to be markedly lower than in previous weeks, largely due to the crackdown and security presence. But amateur video posted online by activists showed thousands of protesters in various areas, some calling for Assad’s departure, others for his execution.
Although Assad told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Wednesday that military and police operations had stopped, residents and activists said soldiers, tanks and armored personnel carriers were still deployed in restive cities.
Asked Friday whether the U.N. chief believes Assad when he says the violence has stopped, U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said: “We continue to hear some disturbing reports that we would need to look into.”