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As the US and its allies launched fresh efforts to persuade Russia to back international action against Syria, Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin said yesterday that Moscow had no intention of providing asylum for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad if he were forced out.
Mr. Putin's comments marked a rare lack of Russian support for the Syrian leader, a long-time ally and arms trading partner. But it does not seem to indicate a softening of Russia’s opposition to intervention in Syria, where at least 7,500 have died as the uprising approaches its one-year anniversary.
“We aren’t even discussing the issue,” Mr. Putin told Russian news agencies, according to the Boston Globe. Last week he criticized the West for not insisting that the Syrian opposition, not just government troops, pull out of besieged areas.
The Washington Post reports that Obama administration officials said earlier this week that with Putin’s victory in March 4 elections, they intended to relaunch efforts to persuade Russia to cooperate with the international community and take stronger action against Syria. Russia, which has significant financial stakes in Assad's survival and an inherent skepticism about revolutions, has assiduously resisted foreign intervention.
She suggested that Russia, which has vetoed two U.N. resolutions on Syria, had been “preoccupied” with its presidential election. In what appeared to be a coordinated message, British and French officials said much the same thing.
Putin has given no indication that the election victory will have any effect on Russia’s stance on intervention, according to the Post.
But the US still sees Russia as having the potential to play a critical part in ending the violence in Syria. That was evident in Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s comments yesterday as he discussed US options, reported by Russian news outlet RIA Novosti.
“There's no question in my mind that Russia could play a very significant role in putting pressure on Assad. They've got a port there; they have influence there; they have dealings there,” he said.
“Unfortunately, they – the position they've taken in the U.N. was to oppose the resolution and that's a shame. But there is no question that they and the Chinese, if they want to advance the cause of the Syrian people, they could bring great pressure on them to do the right thing,” Panetta said.
On the ground, international aid organizations are struggling to come to the assistance of Syrians in Homs and other areas that have been the target of government attacks. Valerie Amos, UN humanitarian chief, told reporters today that the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs, which was the target of a month-long air assault by government forces, is “completely destroyed” and that most residents have fled. She was the first international observer authorized by the regime to enter the area since troops overran the neighborhood on March 1, the Associated Press reports.
The government kept the neighborhood sealed off from the day they wrested control from the opposition until yesterday, saying it was too dangerous for humanitarian workers to visit. Their restrictions prompted an outcry that they were using the time to hide evidence of their “atrocities,” AP reports.
“The regime’s refusal to allow humanitarian workers to help feed the hungry, tend to the injured, bury the dead, marks a new low,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said. “Tons of food and medicine are standing by while more civilians die and the regime launches new assaults.”
Reuters reports that the International Committee of the Red Cross and Syrian Arab Red Crescent found about 2,700 people in the town of Abel in need of help yesterday, most of them from Baba Amr. They helped more than 2,000 earlier in the week, suggesting an exodus from Baba Amr to Abel.
Separately, at least 2,000 refugees have fled to Lebanon since the weekend, The Christian Science Monitor reports. "People are thinking, if I stay .. I'm going to die, so I have nothing to lose by trying to reach the Lebanese border," says Abu Abbas, who – along with his wife and three small children – dodged Syrian soldiers to escape through an orange grove. "We couldn't live [in the Syrian town of Qusayr] any longer. The shelling was nonstop. They were using everything against us – rockets, mortars, machine guns."
The brutality appears to becoming difficult for some government officials to stay quiet about. Multiple media outlets reported that a man identifying himself as Abdo Hussam el Din, Syria’s deputy oil minister, announced in a video posted on YouTube yesterday that he had defected from the Assad regime.
"I am joining the revolution of this noble people who will not accept injustice," the man said in Arabic, according to CNN. "I've been part of this government for 33 years, and I have acquired many titles, and I do not want to retire serving the crimes of this regime."