Another Russian volte-face: Assad made grave error over reforms
MOSCOW - Russia's prime minister on Sunday accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of having made a "grave, perhaps fatal error" by delaying political reforms, as Damascus courted opposition forces.
"He should have acted much more quickly and reached out to the peaceful opposition which was ready to sit at the negotiating table with him," Russian news agencies quoted Dmitri Medvedev as saying.
"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.
"Executive orders will be issued to border crossings to facilitate and guarantee that all political opposition forces may enter the country, maintain residency and leave at will," Shaar said.
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.
The message came a day after Syria's deputy prime minister, Qadri Jamil, said Russia was still "fulfilling its obligations" to supply weapons to Damascus.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday announced that his government would prepare for the risk of Syria losing control over its arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.
On the ground in Syria, violence raged between rebels and loyalists, a day after the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported 127 people killed nationwide.
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 and by the elite Fourth Division.
A Syrian security source said 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.