BRUSSELS, Dec 21, (Agencies): President Vladimir Putin said Friday that Russia isn’t a defender of Syrian President Bashar Assad and wants to see a democratically elected government, but held his ground on his stance that peace in Syria can only be achieved through talks.
Putin’s statement at the end of talks with EU leaders in Brussels appears to be part of Russia’s efforts to distance itself from its old ally, who has been weakened by opposition victories on the battleground and increasing international isolation.
But Putin made no indication that Moscow could change its stance and stop blocking international sanctions against the Syrian regime.
“We aren’t a defender of the current Syrian leadership,” Putin said.
He said that a lasting peace in Syria can only be reached through a peace agreement that would ensure the protection of various religious and ethnic groups in Syria.
Russia would like to see a “democratic regime in Syria based on the expression of people’s will,” he said.
Russia has backed its last Middle East ally since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011, using its veto power along with China at the UN Security Council to block three resolutions containing sanctions against Damascus.
Syrian rebels attacked a base protecting a military industrial compound in the country’s north on Friday as anti-government forces pushed forward in efforts to capture wider areas near the border with Turkey, an activist group said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said seven rebels were killed in the attack on the air defense base in the town of al-Safira.
The town is home to a complex of military factories and lies just south of Syria’s largest city and commercial hub, Aleppo.
The rebels tried to storm the base but were pushed back, only to later shell some of the military factories, said Observatory’s chief Rami Abdul-Rahman.
The attacks are part of a push by the rebels who have been capturing army bases in and around Aleppo over the past weeks as they gain wider areas near the border with Turkey.
Syria’s conflict started 21 months ago as an uprising against President Bashar Assad, whose family has ruled the country for four decades. It quickly morphed into a civil war, with rebels taking up arms to fight back against a bloody crackdown by the government. According to activists, more than 40,000 people have been killed since March 2001.
Also Friday, the Observatory and other activists, including the Local Coordination Committees, said rebels launched a wave of attacks on military checkpoints and posts in the central province of Hama.
An amateur video posted online by activists showed rebels tearing down Syrian and Palestinian flags from a checkpoint in the strategic village of Morek, along the Damascus-Aleppo highway. Regime troops usually raise the Palestinian flag on their posts because they believe the Palestinian cause concerns all Arabs. The video appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting on the events depicted.
Abdul-Rahman said the military plants in al-Safira are surrounded by army bases and posts to protect them. He said Friday’s clashes came three days after rebels captured a military warehouse in the area. It was later bombed by Syrian warplanes, killing nearly two dozen rebels, Abdul-Rahman said.
Also Friday, a prominent state-run Syrian TV news anchor told the pan-Arab network Al-Arabiya that he defected after being subjected to several sessions of interrogations by the country’s intelligence services.
Ahmad Fakhouri said he and his colleagues used to read the news as it was given to them and “the anchor had no right to change one word.”
Fakhouri said he quit his job at the TV eight months ago and was able to flee the country with the help of rebels.
“I look forward for the day when Syria will be free and I can return to my country to practice my job,” he said from a secret location outside Syria. Fakhouri would not disclose his whereabouts for fear of government repercussions.
The Associated Press contacted the TV head office in Damascus and was told that Fakhouri left and is now working for state-run radio. An official at the state-run radio said Fakhouri is on vacation.
Syrian authorities usually don’t comment about defections of officials or state employees.
In Damascus, Palestinian refugees streamed back into their Yarmuk camp after a reported deal to keep it out of the conflict, following fierce clashes earlier this week.
An AFP correspondent heard sporadic shooting early Friday and a main road was blocked with buolders to keep out cars, although a van full of passengers still entered through a side street.
“We returned because we have had enough of being humiliated,” one said. “We lost our land (Palestine) but we don’t want to lose our homes and live in tents like our parents.”
The fighting forced about 100,000 of Yarmuk’s 150,000-strong population to flee, with many taking refuge in Damascus parks and squares, said the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees.
Hours after they returned on Friday, fighting again flared in the camp for about an hour and a half, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“The fighting pitted anti-regime Syrian and Palestinian rebels against members of the pro-regime popular committees,” said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.
The clashes were between fighters who had not withdrawn from Yarmuk despite a reported agreement.
Talks began on Wednesday aimed at removing both rebel and pro-government fighters from Yarmuk.
Newspapers in neighbouring Lebanon said an agreement had been reached under the auspices of Mokhtar Lamani, the representative of UN-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.
The UN’s World Food Programme, meanwhile, said it was to start providing food to 125,000 “vulnerable Palestinians and displaced Syrians” in and around Yarmuk.
Syria’s main opposition group denounced on Friday an Iranian peace initiative for the war-torn country as a last-ditch bid save the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
“As the free forces of the Syrian people accomplish one decisive political and military victory after another, the regime and its allies keep on launching lacklustre and overdue political initiatives,” said the National Coalition.
“The Iranian initiative represents one example of these desperate attempts to throw a lifeline to the inevitably sinking ship of the Assad regime,” it said in a statement.
Tehran, the most powerful regional ally of the embattled Assad regime, detailed a six-point peace initiative on Sunday, according to Iranian media reports.
The plan did not envisage the fall of the regime, but instead called for “an immediate halt to violence and armed actions under the supervision of the United Nations”.
It also called for sanctions against Syria to be lifted, the start of national dialogue, the establishment of a transitional government, and free elections.
The National Coalition said the initiative “claims to care about the lives, unity, and independence of the Syrian people”.
But it added that “if the intent of the Iranian regime was sincere in this regard, it would be able to contribute to the Syrian people to achieve their ultimate demands and interests.
“The Iranian regime can do this by ending its support to the Assad regime politically, militarily, and economically, and by pressuring the regime to leave as soon as possibles,” said the opposition bloc.
“The Iranian regime must seriously consider the future of relations between the Syrian and Iranian people, as the regime it supports is falling.”
The UN Security Council on Thursday slapped sanctions on two Iranian firms accused of supplying arms to the Syrian government, a UN statement said.
Yas Air and the SAD Import Export Company were added to a growing Iran sanctions list for breaching an arms embargo ordered against the Islamic republic for its nuclear drive.
According to diplomats, Turkish authorities intercepted arms shipments organized by Yas Air to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2011.
US ambassador Susan Rice said that Yas Air and SAD were “significantly involved in Iranian arms smuggling.”
The two firms were “responsible for shipping ammunition, assault rifles, machine guns, mortar shells and other arms from Iran to Syria,” Rice said in a statement.
The sanctions action orders an assets freeze against the firm and bans dealings with the companies.
The UN Security Council has ordered four rounds of increasingly tough sanctions against Iran over its refusal to halt uranium enrichment. Western nations say this is part of a drive for a nuclear bomb. Iran denies the charge.
Iran is also a key backer of the Syrian leader and the sanctions regime allows countries to inspect Iranian cargo deliveries to prevent weapons proliferation.
The UN anti-genocide envoy warned on Thursday that minority groups in Syria, including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s fellow Alawites, are at risk of major reprisal attacks as the 21-month-old conflict escalates and sectarian violence increases.
“I am deeply concerned that entire communities risk paying the price for crimes committed by the Syrian government,” Adama Dieng, UN special adviser on the prevention of genocide, said in a statement.
The statement said Alawites and other minorities in Syria were increasingly under threat of large-scale reprisal attacks because they are widely associated with the government and allied militia.
Rebels began to push into a strategic town in Syria’s central Hama province on Thursday and laid siege to at least one town dominated by Alawites, activists said.
Opposition sources said rebels had won some territory in the strategic southern town of Morek and were surrounding the Alawite town of al-Tleisia.
The rebel operation risks inflaming already raw sectarian tensions as the revolt against four decades of Assad family rule — during which the president’s Alawite sect has dominated leadership of the Sunni Muslim majority — rumbles on.
“I urge all parties to the conflict to adhere to international humanitarian and human rights law, which prohibits the targeting of individuals or groups based on religious or ethnic identity as well as attacks against civilians not taking direct part in hostilities,” Dieng said.
“I also call on all actors to condemn hate speech that could constitute incitement to violence against communities based on their religious affiliation,” said Dieng.
Sunnis have seen themselves as disenfranchised by Assad’s Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that dominates Syria’s power and security structures. Shiites and Christians are also sizable minorities in Syria.
UN human rights investigators said in Geneva on Thursday that Syria’s conflict was becoming more sectarian, with more civilians seeking to arm themselves and foreign fighters — mostly Sunnis — flocking in from 29 countries.

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