Russia said on Tuesday that embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was ready to accept an expanded Arab League mission that he plans to call for a referendum on a reformed constitution, Russian news agencies reported.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov qwas quoted by the agency as saying that Assad had assured him he was “completely committed” to seeking an end to violence by all sides, 11 months into a revolt against his rule, and was ready to seek dialogue with all political groups.
Lavrov said that “Syria is informing the Arab League it is interested in the League’s mission continuing its work and being increased in terms of quantity,” Interfax reported.
“Russia is convinced of the need to preserve and expand (the mission), which is a serious stabilizing factor in Syria,” he said.
But Arab states appeared on Tuesday heading more toward the adoption of tougher measures against the Assad’s regime.
The six Gulf Cooperation Council states decided to expel Syria’s envoys and withdraw their own from Damascus over the “mass slaughter” of civilians in Syria, a joint statement said on Tuesday.
The statement added that there was “no point in them staying after the Syrian regime rejected all attempts and aborted all honest Arab efforts to solve this crisis and end the bloodshed.”
The GCC urged other Arab states to use an Arab League meeting next week to adopt “all decisive measures in response to this dangerous escalation against the Syrian people.”
GCC states “follow with sorrow and anger, the increase in killing and violence in Syria, which has not spared children, old people or women with heinous acts that at best can be described as mass slaughter,” the statement said.
The Russian foreign minister said President Bashar al-Assad was “completely committed to the task of stopping violence regardless of where it may come from.”
Opposition activists have dismissed similar pledges made by Assad in the past because he continued trying to eliminate unrest with tanks and troops and branded his adversaries “terrorists” and “armed gangs.”
Russia, one of Syria’s last remaining allies, and China on Saturday vetoed an Western- and Arab-drafted resolution in the U.N. Security Council that supported an Arab League call for Assad to step down.
Moscow said the draft would have put too little pressure on armed opponents of the government, which Moscow says must share responsibility for nearly a year of bloodshed that has killed thousands of people.
On the referendum, Lavrov said: “President Assad informed (me) that he will meet in the coming days with the commission that prepared a draft of the new constitution,” state-run Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported.
“The work is finished, and now a date will be announced for a referendum on this important document for Syria.”
There are now only about 110 monitors in the sprawling country of 23 million, following the departure last month of Gulf Arabs from the mission in despair at continued bloodletting despite their presence.
Lavrov also affirmed Russia’s “readiness to help foster the swiftest exit from the crisis on the basis of positions set out in the Arab League initiative”, Interfax reported.
Russia has supported an Arab League peace proposal for Syria floated last November, but there was no indication from Lavrov’s quoted remarks that Russia had come around to specifically backing the League’s call on Assad to leave office.