8 Feb 2012
The Government has given a sceptical response to claims that Syrian president Bashar Assad is ready to end bloodshed and stage a referendum on a new constitution.
During a visit to Damascus, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said he had received assurances from Assad that he was “completely committed to the task of stopping violence regardless of where it may come from”.
But Downing Street said Syria’s government must be judged by its “savage” actions, not its words. Foreign Secretary William Hague is seeking urgent talks with Mr Lavrov to discuss the latest developments.
Earlier, Prime Minister David Cameron chaired an hour-long meeting of the National Security Council, at which ministers and defence chiefs discussed what action the UK can take to support a peaceful solution to the crisis in Syria, after Russia and China vetoed an Arab-backed United Nations resolution.
The NSC agreed to support the Arab League’s efforts to broker an Arab-led peace in the country; to push for new sanctions to put pressure on the Assad regime; and to work with the opposition to encourage them to set out a clear vision for a unified and peaceful Syria, said a Downing Street spokeswoman.
But there was no suggestion that the UK should send arms to opposition forces. Direct support was limited to face-to-face advice on communications, training, human rights and how to develop credible plans for a democratic future, said the spokeswoman.
Speaking after his talks with Assad in Damascus, Mr Lavrov – who was given a hero’s welcome by thousands of regime loyalists – said he had secured a promise that the president would seek an end to the bloodshed which has seen almost 6,000 die during an 11-month uprising.
Russian news agencies reported Mr Lavrov as saying: “The president of Syria assured us he was ‘completely committed to the task of stopping violence regardless of where it may come from’. President Assad informed (me) that he will meet in the coming days with the commission that prepared a draft of the new constitution. The work is finished, and now a date will be announced for a referendum on this important document for Syria.”
Mr Lavrov, who was accompanied by Russian foreign intelligence service chief Mikhail Fradkov, also affirmed Moscow’s “readiness to help foster the swiftest exit from the crisis on the basis of positions set out in the Arab League initiative”. He told Assad: “Necessary reforms must be implemented in order to address legitimate demands of the people striving for a better life.”
The Downing Street spokeswoman said: “The Foreign Secretary is looking to meet with Mr Lavrov, or at least speak to him, as soon as possible. We have seen the reports of Lavrov’s visit, but our position has not changed. We will continue to judge the Syrian regime by its actions, not its words.”