Russia warns West, Arabs against arming Syria rebels
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia warned Western and Arab nations on Wednesday against arming opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, saying it would lead to years of bloodshed without helping the rebels to defeat government forces.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the "Friends of Syria" group of Western and Arab nations is undermining international envoy Kofi Annan's efforts to end more than a year of violence, and criticized countries that support arming the opposition.
"It is clear as day that even if the opposition is armed to the teeth, it will not defeat the Syrian army, and there will simply be slaughter and mutual destruction for long, long years," Interfax news agency quoted Lavrov as saying.
Russia has emphasized that the efforts of U.N.-Arab League envoy Annan are the only path to peace and has stayed away from "Friends of Syria" meetings, saying the group is biased in favor of Assad's opponents and is not promoting peace.
"Everyone has supported Kofi Annan's plan but decisions at the 'Friends of Syria' group meeting aimed at arming the opposition and at new sanctions undermine peace efforts," Itar-Tass quoted Lavrov as saying during a visit to Azerbaijan.
Western and Arab nations said after a "Friends of Syria" meeting on Sunday in Istanbul that the group would consider further "measures with a view to the protection of the Syrian people".
FRIENDS AND FOES
The group made no mention of arming the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), as advocated by some Gulf Arab states, but hardline Gulf countries may interpret the phrase as a license to fund, if not arm, the FSA.
Russia has joined China in vetoing U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning Assad's government for the violence, and says foreign calls for his exit are unacceptable, but backed a council statement last month supporting Annan's proposals.
The United Nations estimates Assad's forces have killed more than 9,000 people in the past year, while the government says about 3,000 security personnel have been killed by what it describes as foreign-backed gangs of terrorists.
Assad has agreed to a ceasefire from April 10 negotiated by Annan. Russia has accepted the stipulation that the Syrian government must take the first step, but has emphasized that the opposition must also act swiftly to comply.
Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said that Syrian forces has begun withdrawing from cities and towns in accordance with Annan's plan. Gatilov added that Russia hoped Syria would meet the April 10 deadline, but made clear it would be wary of any new formal action by the Security Council.
After the Council statement in support of Annan's mission, "we believe artificial prodding of this process does not foster conditions for realization of Annan's plan", Interfax quoted Gatilov as saying. "We do not accept any ultimatums."
"In principle we believe it is possible to do without any Security Council decisions. Kofi Annan is continuing his efforts, the Syrian side has begun withdrawing forces from cities. The main thing now is for all sides to carry out Annan's proposals," he said.
However, opposition activists accused Assad's forces of bombarding rebel areas on Wednesday, saying at least 80 people have been killed since Tuesday despite the imminent arrival of the advance team from the U.N. peacekeeping department.
Gatilov said Russia would be willing to consider "additional impulses from the Security Council" if other members believe they are needed, but added: "Any reaction by the Security Council must be balanced and contain an appeal to both sides - the government and opposition."
On Tuesday, the Kremlin's Middle East envoy called for "actions in response by the Syria opposition and its armed groups, including a clear affirmation of dedication to the 'Annan plan' and practical steps to implement it".
Syria has given post-Soviet Russia its firmest foothold in the Middle East, buying billions of dollars' worth of weapons and hosting a maintenance and supply facility that is Russia's only warm water naval port outside the former Soviet Union.
Russia has promised "full support" for Annan's plan, which includes a political dialogue between the government and opponents but no direct call for Assad to step aside.
Lavrov said representatives of the Syrian opposition would visit Moscow soon, and Itar-Tass cited an unnamed diplomat in the Russian capital as saying Syria's foreign minister would visit on April 10.
(Editing by David Stamp)