REPORTING FROM BEIRUT -- Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ventured Wednesday into the raging international debate about Syria, voicing support for Moscow’s controversial decision to throw a diplomatic lifeline to embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“Of course, we condemn any instance of violence, whatever side this violence comes from, but one cannot behave like a bull in a china shop,” Putin said at a meeting in Moscow with Russian religious leaders, Interfax news agency reported. “People should be given [the opportunity] to decide their fate themselves.”
Putin faces what some have dubbed "Russian Spring" protests in his bid to be elected president next month. Some commentators have said the Russian leadership is especially wary of United Nations-backed regime change in autocratic states. Moscow was unhappy with the scenario last year in Libya, where U.N. action paved the way for a Western-led bombing campaign that helped topple Moammar Kadafi.
However, Russian officials say their actions on Syria, including a veto Saturday of a U.N. Security Council measure calling on Assad to step aside, have been motivated by a desire to avoid more bloodshed. The joint veto by Russia and China drew condemnation from Syrian opposition groups and governments that are calling on Assad to step down.
The comments by Putin come a day after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov received a boisterous welcome in Damascus and met with Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for more than 40 years. The top Russian diplomat said he had exacted a vow from the Syrian leader to help end the violence that has ravaged the Middle East nation for almost a year. Assad also pledged to hasten reforms and talks with the opposition, Lavrov said.
“The president of Syria assured us he was completely committed to the task of stopping violence, regardless of where it may come from,” Lavrov said after meeting with Assad.
But opposition groups, the United States and other nations seeking Assad’s ouster expressed skepticism about the Syrian leader's commitment to peace. Burhan Ghalioun, the head the opposition Syrian National Council, called Lavrov’s visit “a truly aggressive act against the Syrian people,” reported the pan-Arab satellite network Al Jazeera.
The week has seen a number of nations, including the United States, several European countries and Gulf Arab states, recall their envoys from Damascus. Some Arab states opposed to Assad also expelled Syrian diplomats. The Russian foreign minister said the withdrawal of diplomats from Damascus would not help peace efforts.
The Syrian government assault on the rebel stronghold of Homs continued Wednesday, said opposition activists, who reported a fifth consecutive day of shelling with heavy civilian casualties.
The Syrian government said security forces battled “terrorists” in Homs and elsewhere in Syria.
-- Patrick J. McDonnell
Photo: Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, right, and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, left, attend a meeting with Russia's religious leaders in the St. Daniel Monastery in Moscow on Wednesday. Credit: Grigory Dukor / Associated Press