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Russia changes stance, says Syrian forces should pull out of conflict

Thursday, March 22, 2012 | 9:14 p.m. CDT; updated 10:01 p.m. CDT, Thursday, March 22, 2012
Anti-Syrian regime protesters chant slogans during a demonstration against Syrian President Bashar Assad and to show their solidarity with the Syrian people in the northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon, on Feb. 24. The United States, Europe and Arab countries were set Friday to back a proposal for Syria's president to step aside and allow in humanitarian assistance to end a brutal crackdown against opponents.

 MOSCOW — Syrian President Bashar Assad must take the first step toward settling his country's yearlong conflict by pulling his forces out of cities and allowing humanitarian assistance, a senior Russian lawmaker said Thursday, in a statement that signaled a marked shift in Moscow's stance.

The comments by Mikhail Margelov, the Kremlin-connected chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of Russian parliament, indicated Moscow's increasing impatience with Assad and its eagerness to raise pressure on an old ally.

"Syrian President Bashar Assad must urgently fix numerous mistakes that he has made, according to Russia's official position," Margelov said, according to the ITAR-Tass and RIA Novosti news agencies.

Commenting on Wednesday's statement by the United Nations Security Council that spelled out U.N. mediator Kofi Annan's proposals, including guaranteed humanitarian access and the pullout of government forces from Syrian cities and towns, Margelov said that Assad should now act first.

"Assad must take the first step," Margelov was quoted as saying. "He must pull out the Syrian army from big cities. It's also necessary to deliver humanitarian assistance to the areas affected by fighting."

That is a departure from Russia's previous position that both the government and opposition's forces need to simultaneously withdraw from cities.

The Syrian government has insisted that the opposition should be the first to end hostilities, while the West has demanded that Assad's military halts its offense first, followed by the opposition.

Russia, along with China, has twice shielded Assad from United Nations' sanctions over his crackdown on an uprising in which more than 8,000 people have been killed. But Moscow has strongly supported a plan to settle the crisis by Annan, the former U.N. secretary-general who is the joint U.N. and Arab League envoy for Syria.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said Thursday that Annan will visit Moscow in the next "couple of days" to discuss the settlement.

Bogdanov said that Russia will also play host to a Syrian opposition delegation, including members of the National Coordination Committee, one of Syria's two main opposition groups, in Moscow in the next few days. He said that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will meet with them.

Speaking before Russian parliament last week, Lavrov criticized Assad for being too slow to implement long-needed reforms and warned that the conflict in the Arab state could spiral out of control.

He also complained in a weekend interview with state television about the "unproportionate" use of force by government troops and said Moscow disagrees with many of the decisions made by Syrian leadership.

Meanwhile, U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said she was continuing to press for unhindered access for humanitarian organizations, including pro-opposition areas.

Technical staff from U.N. agencies and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation are part of a government-led humanitarian assessment mission of humanitarian needs that began on March 18.

Amos said in a statement that the U.N. and other humanitarian partners will do their own independent analysis of the assessment and finalize a preliminary response plan to help people in desperate need.


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