Putin heads to Berlin as Syria crisis escalates
Germany on Friday urged Russia to curb its support for Damascus, ahead of President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Berlin and Paris that is set to be dominated by the escalating Syria crisis.
“In our view Russia should recognise that we are not working against Russian strategic interests when we want to stop the violence in Syria,” Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told Die Welt ahead of Putin’s arrival.
Russia is coming under increasing pressure over its resistance to UN action on Syria, particularly since the massacre in the town of Houla last week that left 108 people dead, including women and children, and caused global outrage.
There have been at least two claims of fresh massacres since Houla. Thirteen people were discovered apparently executed in Assukar on Tuesday night, while activists in Qusayr told AFP by telephone Friday that Syrian government forces summarily executed 12 civilians on their way home from work in a fertiliser factory.
Meanwhile UN human rights chief Navi Pillay warned a special meeting of the Human Rights Council on Friday that Syria and the entire region are in danger if a full-fledged conflict erupts in the country.
“Russia and its stance towards the Assad regime plays a key role in the Syrian crisis,” Westerwelle said.
But he warned against military intervention in Syria, where activists estimate more than 13,000 people have been killed since President Bashar al-Assad’s forces launched a brutal crackdown on opponents in March last year.
“We must not give the impression in this difficult situation that military intervention is the road to a quick fix,” Westerwelle said. “The political and diplomatic paths are extremely difficult but we must pursue them.”
Putin, who was sworn in for a third term as president last month, holds talks in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday before heading to Paris where he will meet French President Francois Hollande.
A day ahead of her talks with Putin, Merkel struck a conciliatory note saying that Russia had worked “constructively” on the Syria crisis at the UN Security Council, but she declined to voice her expectations of the meeting with Putin.
Hollande has refused to rule out foreign military intervention, as long as it is carried out with UN backing, to stamp out nearly 15 months of fighting, which observers believe has claimed some 13,000 lives.
Hollande, who will meet Putin for the first time since both men assumed office last month, said he would seek to persuade Putin to ramp up pressure on Syria and support a new round of sanctions.
“I will talk about it with President Putin when he comes to Paris on Friday. He, along with China, has been the most reluctant on the question of sanctions,” Hollande said.
“And we must convince them that it is not possible to allow the Assad regime to massacre its own people.”
Russia came in for criticism by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday over its resistance to UN action on Syria when she warned that its policy of propping up the Assad regime could contribute to a civil war.
But Moscow has indicated it is in no mood to shift its stance on its Soviet-era ally, with Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying that Russia’s position was “balanced and consistent and completely logical.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has insisted that Russia supports Annan’s peace plan and not Assad.
Intense behind-the-scenes negotiations focused on ways Moscow could back down without losing its diplomatic prestige are believed to be under way.
The New York Times has reported that one option involves a transition of power similar to that used to end president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s strongman rule in Yemen this year.
Germany, France, Britain, the United States and other Western nations expelled Syrian diplomats after the massacre of 108 people, mainly women and children, in Houla, in central Syria on Friday and Saturday.
Ahead of his three-nation visit which started in isolated Belarus on Thursday, Putin convened a meeting of the influential Security Council dedicated to the Syria crisis as well as the Kremlin’s ties with Belarus which is blackballed by the West for its government’s crackdown on the opposition.