MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made clear Monday that Moscow would not support a plan to send U.N. peacekeepers to Syria unless there was a halt to violence by both government forces and their armed opponents.
Lavrov said Russia was studying the proposal for a joint United Nations-Arab peacekeeping force in Syria, announced on Sunday at an Arab League meeting in Cairo, and wanted more details.
But his remarks suggested his country, which has veto power at the U.N. Security Council, would use the proposal to underscore its own argument that the government’s armed opponents are no less of an obstacle to peace than Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
U.N. peacekeeping missions “need to first have a peace to support,” Lavrov told a news conference after talks with United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan.
“In other words, it is necessary to agree to something like a cease-fire, but the tragedy is that the armed groups that are confronting the forces of the regime are not subordinate to anyone and are not under control,” Lavrov said in Moscow.
Russia joined China on February 4 in a double veto to block a U.N. Security Council resolution supporting an Arab League call for Assad to quit, provoking strong criticism from the Western and Arab sates that supported the draft.
Lavrov, who met Assad in Damascus three days after the veto, said he told the president the violence - which the United Nations says has killed more than 5,000 people since the start of a state crackdown on protests almost a year ago - must stop.
However, he emphasized Monday, this “also applies to the armed groups opposing the regime, which use modern guns, mortars and grenade launchers and also sow death.”
“A halt to the violence ... must be universal, no matter where it comes from,” Lavrov said. “So there needs to be a mechanism for the realization of this most important, key, primary principle.”
Russia has been increasingly isolated in its support for Assad, whose government has given Moscow its strongest post-Soviet foothold in the Middle East by buying arms and hosting a naval maintenance and supply facility.
Russia has said it fears a U.N. resolution on Syria would open the door to foreign military intervention - like the NATO bombing that helped rebels drive Muammar Gaddafi from power in Libya last year - and charged that the draft it vetoed earlier this month placed too little pressure on Assad’s opponents.
Moscow also contends that the Security Council and other international groups must not support a Syrian political process in which specific decisions, such as Assad’s giving up power, have been determined in advance.
Lavrov said Monday that Assad’s opponents should stop pushing for his removal and settle for a political dialogue led on the government side by Vice President Farouq al-Shara.
He said Assad had told the Russian delegation Shara was fully empowered to hold dialogue with opponents of the government.
“I believe it would be necessary to take advantage of this movement - perhaps not big but nonetheless one that creates a chance to begin such a dialogue,” Lavrov said. “Now the ball is in the opposition’s court.”
Additional reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Alessandra Rizzo