Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has agreed to attend an international meeting on Syria in Geneva on June 30 organized by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, Russia’s U,N, envoy said Tuesday.
Because of the “grim” situation in Syria “we need to work even harder. What I can tell you is that Sergei Lavrov has officially accepted the invitation to come to the action group meeting in Geneva,” Russia’s UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters ahead of a closed-door meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Syria.
“We attach great importance to this meeting. As you know Russia proposed an international conference on Syria and this is very much in line with our thinking,” the envoy added.
“I hope that other planned participants are going to be there as well, so we are looking forward to it and we hope that it can provide a powerful impetus for political efforts to put an end to the conflict in Syria.”
The United States, Britain, France and China - the other four permanent members of the U.N. Security Council - have not yet said whether they would attend the Geneva meeting.
Meanwhile, United Nations envoy Kofi Annan has proposed inviting Iran to the Geneva high-level meeting that will discuss a political transition in Syria but is leaving it up to the U.S. and Russia to decide whether Iran can participate, The Associated Press reported on Tuesday.
U.S. officials said Monday that Annan wants an “understanding” between Washington and Moscow on Iran, other potential guests and the agenda, before he issues formal invitations to the meeting he intends to host in Geneva on Saturday.
The U.S. is adamantly opposed to Iran taking part, while Russia supports its inclusion.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the diplomacy. They said Annan is seeking a U.S.-Russian agreement by later Tuesday.
Washington said late Monday that the U.N. Security Council has been a “colossal failure” in protecting Syrian civilians and made a new demand for sanctions against President Bashar al-Assad.
The council, which is divided on how to end the conflict, “continues to stand by, rather than to stand up,” Susan Rice, U.S. envoy to the United Nations, told the 15-nation body.
The Security Council is to get an update on the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) on Tuesday from Nasser al-Kudwa, deputy to Annan.
“The situation in Syria represents a colossal failure by the Security Council to protect civilians,” Rice told a council debate on civilians in conflict, according to AFP.
“For over a year, this council has not been willing to protect the Syrian people from the brutal actions of their government,” she added, saying the Assad government's crackdown “has grown ever more reprehensible and ever more dangerous to international peace and security.”
“It is a shame that this Council continues to stand by rather than to stand up,” Rice said.
“We must take meaningful steps, including by imposing binding sanctions under Chapter VII, to pressure” Assad to comply with Annan’s six point peace plan and work toward a political transition, the U.S. envoy added.
More clashes as death toll rises
In Syria, at least 57 people have been killed across the country on Tuesday by security force gunfire, Al Arabiya reported citing the Syrian Revolution General Commission.
“Violent clashes are taking place around positions of the Republican Guard in Qadsaya and al-Hama,” eight kilometers (five miles) from central Damascus, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights head Rami Abdul Rahman told AFP.
“This is the first time that the regime uses artillery in fighting so close to the capital,” he said. “This development is important because it’s the heaviest fighting in the area and close to the heart of the capital.”
“These suburbs are home to barracks of troops which are very important for the regime like the Republican Guard. This is also where families of (army) officers live,” he said.
In shell-shattered districts of Homs, the heart of the uprising against Assad, rebels battled troops as aid workers tried to evacuate civilians. Turkish television reported the desertion of a Syrian general and other officers across the border, according to Reuters.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it was again trying to arrange a safe evacuation of trapped civilians from Homs. But anti-government activists reported heavy shelling on central districts, including Jouret al-Shiyah and al-Qarabis.
Video showed detonations and machinegun bursts from the skeletal remains of abandoned apartment blocks.
The activist Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Assad’s troops carried out raids and arrests in areas still under army control, and heavy fighting between government forces and rebel fighters was reported in the opposition centers of Idlib, Deir Ezzor and Deraa, the birthplace of the uprising.
Kamal al-Labwani, one of the founders of the Syrian National Front, expressed to Al Arabiya his fear of a possible regional conflict as the fighting escalates in Syria. “What the [Syrian] regime is doing now is an attempt to direct the attention away from what is happening interiorly,” he said.
“The Assad regime now fears that Russia might change its stand,” Labwani told Al Arabiya.
While the United States, Britain, France and Germany have called for sanctions against Assad, Russia and China have twice used their powers as permanent members of the council to veto resolutions which hinted at sanctions.
Two other resolutions have been passed though setting up UNSMIS and calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops and heavy weapons from cities.
Rebel forces and Syrian army units were locked in fierce clashes around elite Republican Guard posts in the suburbs of Damascus on Tuesday, a monitoring group said.
Britain, France and the United States are working on a new resolution which would call for sanctions on Syria, where activists say more than 15,000 people have died in the past 15 months of conflict. The U.N. put the number of people killed at 10,000.