Assad assures Putin Syria working for Mideast peace

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed Syrian leader Bashar Assad for talks Tuesday focusing on fighting between Palestinian factions and the political crisis in Lebanon — as part of Moscow’s effort to strengthen its role in the Middle East amid escalating tensions in the region.

“Unfortunately, the situation in the Middle East remains tense,” Putin told Assad at the start of their talks at the Kremlin. “We are seeing that one conflict in the region is developing after another, and that can’t but concern us.” Putin and Assad were expected to talk about how to ease tensions among the Palestinians, where supporters of the president and the prime minister have been locked in a violent standoff, as well as efforts to hold peace talks between Syria and Israel — which Assad recently has shown a willingness to consider.

Putin also met last week with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, who asked Moscow to use its influence on Damascus, a Soviet-era ally, in the talks with Assad. Syria, which backs the Hizbollah opposition based in Lebanon’s south, and has long exerted its political influence on the neighbouring country.

Syria has expressed willingness in recent days to restart peace talks with Israel, but Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Monday it was impossible because of Damascus’ support for Israel’s enemies Hizbollah and Hamas.

Israel and the Hizbollah fought a 34-day war in Lebanon earlier this year.

“Our desire for peace remains the same. But the Israeli government doesn’t want peace,” Assad told reporters after the talks.

Putin referred to his recent talks with Olmert and Siniora, adding that Russia was trying to contribute to peace efforts. Russia has been a co-sponsor of the peace process along with the United States, the European Union and the United Nations.

“We are continuing to participate in the Middle East peace process as actively as we can,” Putin said. “Syria always has and will play an important role in the region.” Lebanon’s Hizbollah-led opposition has been holding protests against Siniora’s government in an attempt to force its resignation. The group is demanding a national unity government in which it would have wider representation.

Assad assured Putin that Damascus wants the region’s stability. “We are playing an important role in ensuring the stability of our region,” Assad told Putin. “And we will orient others to act in the same direction.” Putin urged Assad to share his views on the Palestinian situation and emphasised that Moscow is maintaining contacts with all sides there.

He also suggested discussing the situation in Iraq, saying the world community should take a joint effort to improve the situation there.

Russia and Syria have long-standing economic and political ties. Last year, Moscow agreed to write off nearly three-quarters of Syria’s $13 billion debt in a bid to increase economic relations between the two countries.

“Our cooperation has strengthened recently, and one of the aims of my visit is to widen that cooperation in different areas,” Assad said at the start of the Kremlin talks. 

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