Monday 22 January 2018

Syrai Houla massacre: Britain and Russia split over future of Assad

Ben Glaze and Andrew Woodcock

BRITAIN and Russia were split today on whether Syrian President Bashar al Assad should stand down amid the bloodshed in the country.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague called for the leader to quit following international outrage at the weekend massacre in Houla which killed at least 100 civilians, including dozens of children.

But Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said regime change in Damascus was "not the most important thing".

Speaking at a joint press conference in Russia, Mr Hague repeated his demand for President Assad to handover power, saying: "We have a long-standing view about this in the UK.

"We have said all the way back from last August that finding a solution to this involves him standing aside."

But, sitting next to Mr Hague, Mr Lavrov rejected the call telling reporters: "For us it's not the most important thing who is in power in Syria.

"For us the main thing is to provide for the end of all violence."

The pair agreed Syria must implement a six-point plan for peace by former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan, who has been appointed a peace envoy to Syria.

Russia, which is a long-term ally of Syria with a crucial military base in the country, has sometimes acted as a block to international action against the Assad regime over the past year.

But both Mr Hague and Mr Lavrov said they were in agreement about the importance of the implementation of Annan's plan, which envisages a truce, withdrawal of troops and heavy weapons from cities, deployment of a UN monitoring force, and dialogue between the government and opposition aimed at a Syrian-led political transition.

Mr Lavrov said Moscow wanted Syria to sort out its problems "without foreign interference" and stressed the need to "respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty" of the country.

Mr Annan, who spoke to Mr Hague today, will visit the Syrian capital today to try to get his peace plan back on track.

The Syrian government was last night accused by the United Nations of an "outrageous use of force" against civilians in Houla.

The regime's claim that the bloodshed was caused by anti-government forces was dismissed by the international community, including Mr Hague.

After an emergency meeting yesterday, the UN Security Council said the Syrian government was responsible for artillery and tank shelling of residential areas.

It also condemned "the killing of civilians by shooting at close range and by severe physical abuse", adding that the "outrageous use of force" violated international law.

The Syrian charge d'affaires is to be summoned to the Foreign Office today to hear the Government's condemnation.

Speaking alongside Mr Lavrov at a press conference in Moscow, Mr Hague acknowledged that Britain and Russia had not always seen eye-to-eye on Syria, but characterised today's discussions as "good and frank and honest" and said Russia had "a role to play" in resolving the situation.

Mr Hague said world leaders "look to Russia as having a particularly powerful role in being able to exert that additional pressure" on President Assad's regime.

But Mr Lavrov insisted: "We do exert pressure on the Syrian government daily," and called for the Syrian political process run its course "without any foreign interference".

Mr Hague admitted "unresolved difficulties remained" between Russia and the UK, but highlighted areas where they were united.

"We are very much agreed that the Annan plan is the best hope for Syria at the moment, the only hope for Syria to try to break the cycle of violence," he said.

"I think we are all deeply disturbed by what we have seen over the weekend; that has illuminated the continuing killing and abuse in Syria."

Mr Hague said the death toll in Syria since the uprising began 15 months ago may now run to 15,000.

Previous estimates have suggested about 10,000 people have been killed since pro-democracy protesters took to the streets as part of the Arab Spring which wept the Middle East and North Africa.

"There have been huge numbers of people killed, perhaps 15,000," the Foreign Secretary said.

"It is not as if the alternatives in Syria are the Annan plan or the Assad regime retaking control of the country.

"The alternatives are the Annan plan or ever-increasing chaos in Syria and a descent closer and closer to all-out civil war and collapse.

"We have to redouble our efforts to make sure the Assad regime implements the Annan plan. We will work closely with Russia in doing so.

"There needs to be a fundamental change in the approach of the Assad regime if Syria is to be saved from ever greater chaos and disorder, which wouldn't be in the interests of Russia or any other country in the world."

Press Association

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