Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Tuesday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was “making a lot of mistakes,” as regime forces drove out rebel forces of Deir al-Zor in fierce assault on the city.
“We believe that the Syrian leadership responded incorrectly to the very first manifestations of the peaceful protests,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Kommersant FM radio in a pre-recorded interview.
“The Syrian leadership -- despite the numerous promises it has made in response to our calls -- is making a lot of mistakes,” said Lavrov. “And the things that are actually moving in the right direction are coming too late.”
His comments came amid growing signs that Russia could drop its support for Assad after a year of violence that Syrian opposition activists say has claimed more than 9,100 lives.
Lavrov hinted on Tuesday that Moscow would not be opposed outright to the idea of Assad being offered safe haven by another country.
“Perhaps that is the case, but that is something for Assad to decide,” he said in response to a question about whether the Syrian president should step down before being toppled and then killed like Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
Lavrov said it was up to the West to offer an acceptable way out for Assad and stressed that Moscow had never discussed the possibility of him coming to Russia.
“People in various Western capitals are calling him a war criminal and declaring that his rightful place is in The Hague,” he said. “This means that it is the people making these statements who should be the ones explaining his options (to Assad) – not us.”
Lavrov said direct negotiations could help decide the issue of who might lead Syria “through a transition period for a certain time as was the case in Yemen.”
The uprising started with non-violent demonstrations last March, but the situation deteriorated rapidly amid a ferocious army crackdown and there are now daily clashes between rebels and security forces around the country.
The United Nations says more than 8,000 people have been killed so far, but the toll is rising rapidly, with at least 31 men, women and children dying on Tuesday, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
The majority of the deaths, 21 in total, were in the central Homs province due to heavy army shelling. Government troops also pounded residential areas in the city of Hama and the town of Rastan, while a soldier died in a raid on a checkpoint in the south, opposition sources said.
Civil war fears
Lightly armed rebel forces have been forced into retreat across the country in recent weeks, with the army using heavy weapons to chase them from towns and cities, chalking up its latest victory in Deir al-Zor.
“Tanks entered residential neighbourhoods, especially in southeastern areas of Deir al-Zor. The Free Syrian Army pulled out to avoid a civilian massacre,” a statement by the Deir al-Zor Revolution Committees Union said.
After failing to hold significant stretches of land, analysts say the rebels appear to be switching to insurgency tactics, pointing to bloody car bomb attacks in two major Syrian cities at the weekend and the sabotage of a major rail link.
Diplomats warn the fighting could develop into a civil war pitching Assad’s Alawite sect and its minority allies against the majority Sunni Muslim population.