Russia top diplomat meets Assad amid regime supporters’ fanfare
DAMASCUS - Moscow's top diplomat was holding talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday after being cheered on his arrival in Damascus by thousands of regime supporters who took to the streets to "thank" Russia, state media reported.
The precise purpose of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's visit has been kept tightly under wraps since it was first announced at the weekend. He is accompanied by Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service chief Mikhail Fradkov.
"Every leader in every country should be aware of his share of responsibility. You are aware of yours," Lavrov said to Assad as they kicked off the talks, according to English-language reports by Russian news agencies.
"We hope that the Arab people can live in peace and understanding," the Russian envoy added.
Syrian state news agency SANA said in English that the foreign minister arrived in Damascus "amid huge popular reception in appreciation of Russia's support to Syria, people and its reform programme."
"Huge crowds flocked to ... greet Minister Lavrov and express appreciation of Russia's stances," it said.
State television showed footage of a sea of regime supporters waving Syrian and Russian flags as they lined the streets of the capital, many chanting: "Thank you Russia, thank you China."
"I want to thank Russia and China for their stand in support of the Syrian people," one woman said, before crowds swarmed to greet Lavrov's convoy.
Lavrov's trip comes days after Russia disgusted the West and Syrian opposition activists Saturday by vetoing along with China a UN Security Council resolution condemning the Assad regime's crackdown on protesters.
The foreign ministry said on Sunday the trip aimed to stabilise the escalating crisis in Syria by winning the "rapid implementation of much-needed democratic reforms" by the Assad regime.
The mission is taking place on the orders of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Russian state media have said Lavrov is bearing a message from the Kremlin for Assad.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Lavrov refused to divulge the purpose of the mission.
"When you go on a mission on the order of the head of state then the purpose of the mission is usually only revealed to the person it is addressed to. If I tell you everything now, then what is the point?" he said.
Russia has so far offered no clues on the role to be played by Fradkov, who heads an ultra-secret organisation that is the successor to the KGB.
Facing intense anger from the West over the use of Russia's veto, Lavrov on Monday hit back by saying that the reactions from Western capitals were "indecent and bordering on hysteria."
"The undiplomatic reaction of the West to Russia's position confirms that our line is correct. It is better to look for compromises," Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.
Medvedev said in October that Assad needed to undertake reforms or resign but Moscow subsequently declined to back mounting Western calls for him to quit.
Lavrov however had insisted in an interview with Australian television last week that Russia was not a friend of Assad.
"We're not a friend, we're not an ally of President Assad. We never said that President Assad remaining in power is the solution to the crisis," he said.