MOSCOW — US President Barack Obama pledged Sunday to send “non-lethal” aid to the Syrian rebels while peace envoy Kofi Annan piled diplomatic pressure on the regime by seeking the backing of its ally Russia.
The announcement was the most overt show of US support for the rebels to date and is certain to irritate Russia following its fierce condemnation of the West’s calls on President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
Blasts meanwhile once again rocked Syria’s flashpoint city of Homs as the regime pressed on with its assault on protest hubs while the rebels countered by attacking a military base in Damascus province.
Obama said at talks with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan ahead of a nuclear security summit in Seoul that they agreed “there should be a process” of transition to a “legitimate government” in Syria.
A top US national security official said the delivery of medical aid and other urgent supplies would top the agenda of a “Friends of Syria” meeting scheduled for April 1 in Istanbul.
Russia denounced the US-backed group on Friday amid contradictory signals from Moscow about the extent of its divide with the West over the crisis.
Annan’s meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev comes just days after Moscow followed through on unprecedented criticism of Assad by finally backing a UN Security Council call on his forces to pull out of protest cities.
Assad has thus far shown few signs of complying. At least 28 civilians were reported killed on Saturday and monitors reported new fighting stretching from the outskirts of the capital Damascus to Syria’s northern border with Turkey.
Sunday witnessed “heavy shelling of Khaldiyeh, Hamidiyeh and Old Homs neighbourhoods by the regime’s army, and explosions shook the whole city,” said the Local Coordination Committees (LCC) of Syria.
Opposition fighters responded to their heavy recent losses by setting up a council to unify their ranks. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebels fired rocket-propelled grenades at a military facility near Damascus on Sunday.
One civilian was reported killed in the northern city of Hama on Sunday, while the LCC reported five troops and three mutinous soldiers killed in the southern town of Nawa.
Moscow on Wednesday backed a non-binding Security Council statement after vetoing two previous resolutions. But it did so only after making sure the text contained no implicit threat of further action should Assad fail to comply.
Annan preceded his talks with Medvedev by holding a private meeting with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Russian officials said agreed on the need for “further efforts” by world and regional powers on resolving the crisis.
“Both sides underscored the importance of working with both the government and the opposition,” Interfax quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov as saying.
Russia’s refusal to formally break its ties with Assad comes in partial response to concern over a wave of Western-backed Arab revolts that swept aside veteran leaders with longstanding ties to Moscow.
The return of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin to a third term as president amid a series of what the Kremlin has branded as US-funded protests in Moscow has added further bitterness to the tone of the diplomatic debate on Syria.
Medvedev’s office said ahead of Annan’s arrival that halting the bloodshed was impossible “without ending the foreign supply of arms to the opposition and its political support.”
Yet Russian officials appear to be preparing for Assad’s eventual departure even while refusing to accept his loss of full legitimacy — a stance taken by most Western powers since last year.
“Assad’s position is difficult,” one unnamed Kremlin official told Interfax on Friday. “I do not know whether he has prospects or not. But no one is predicting another 10 years in power for him.”
Moscow has done less in recent weeks to hide that it was starting to lose patience with Assad despite his commitment to massive new Russian arms purchases and delivery of key naval access to the Mediterranean Sea.
A top Kremlin-linked lawmaker said this week that Assad should treat the UN statement as “an insistent recommendation” whose implementation would determine the future course of relations between the two countries.
“Russia’s future position on the conflict will depend on how successfully (Assad) complies with the provisions spelled out in the Security Council statement,” said senior ruling party member Mikhail Margelov.
The clear shift in tone but persistent refusal to join international calls for Assad to go indicates that “Russia is not wedded to this regime,” said Kommersant foreign affairs correspondent Maxim Yusin.
“Russia’s main goal is to make sure that Assad’s opponents do not grab all the power — this would see Russia lose everything it has in Syria,” Yusin said. “Annan’s visit should tell us what Russia is willing to do should Assad not listen on this occasion.”