DAMASCUS - Russia’s prime minister on Sunday said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had made a “grave, perhaps fatal error” by delaying political reforms, as Damascus courted opposition forces.
“It’s a grave error on his part, perhaps fatal,” he said, in a rare criticism of Assad by Syria’s traditional ally Moscow.
“It seems to me that his chances of staying (in power) are shrinking day by day,” Medvedev said in remarks to CNN television on the sidelines of the Davos World Economic Forum in Switzerland.
Syria’s high judicial council, meanwhile, announced a suspension of prosecutions of opposition members so they can join a national dialogue, state media reported. “The high judicial council has decided to discontinue all prosecutions against opposition forces and individuals so they may participate in the national dialogue,” the official news agency SANA said, without elaborating.
On Saturday, Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar vowed to ease the return of opposition members living in exile to allow them to join a national dialogue proposed by Assad on January 6. In a rare speech, Assad proposed a dialogue with opposition figures who were not “slaves of the West” and on condition that “terrorist attacks” came to a halt. The regime has consistently branded activists and insurgents alike as terrorists.
Shaar, in comments reported by state media, cautioned that the directive allowing Syrian opposition figures living abroad to return was not a blanket amnesty. He emphasised that “there is a big difference between those who safeguard their nation and those who are complicit in foreign agendas.”
Medvedev on Sunday reiterated Russia’s stand that only the Syrian people can decide the fate of Assad, whose departure the West has long called for in the face of a 22-month uprising that has left over 60,000 dead according to the UN. “I personally a few times called Assad and said, You need to start reforms, you need to sit at the negotiating table,” he said, according to the CNN transcript.
“In my view, unfortunately, the Syrian authorities turned out not to be ready for this.”
UN humanitarian aid chief Valerie Amos, meanwhile, held talks in Damascus with Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and other senior officials, her spokesman Khaled al-Masri told AFP. The UN said on January 21 that it will conduct a major humanitarian operation in Syria.
Social Affairs Minister Jassem Zakaria, who also met Amos, urged UN humanitarian agencies to respect their pledges towards families hit by the conflict, SANA reported. Due to deteriorating security, the UN decided at the start of December to suspend operations in Syria and withdrew non-essential foreign staff. While, Iran’s deputy foreign minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian said in Jordan that his country was ready to provide aid to tens of thousands of Syrian refugees living who live in the kingdom. “I met with Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh and discussed Iran’s offer to provide aid to Syrian refugees in Jordan as well as on the Syrian-Lebanese border,” Abdollahian told reporters in Amman without elaborating.
Jordan says it is hosting more than 300,000 Syrians, while the UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates there are 200,000 refugees in Lebanon.
On the ground in Syria, violence raged on Sunday between rebels and loyalists, costing at least 67 lives, including 24 civilians, 19 rebels and 24 soldiers, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
Fighting erupted in the Port Said area of south Damascus and spread to the nearby Qadam train terminal, while the army shelled nearby districts. On the Damascus outskirts, warplanes pounded the Eastern Ghuta region, the watchdog said, while an activist network reported shelling against the southwest suburb of Daraya from Mazzeh military airport by the elite Fourth Division.
A Syrian security source told AFP late last year that the army’s bid to push insurgents from their rear bases around Damascus was aimed at securing an upper hand in any future dialogue.