Russia sees Al-Qaeda hand in Syria
MOSCOW - Agence France- Presse
Russia today accused Al-Qaeda of being behind the brutal recent bombings in Syria and warned of a protracted and increasingly bloody conflict in which neither side gained the upper hand.
Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov painted a bleak picture of Syria's future one month after Bashar al-Assad's government signed up to international envoy Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan.
Gatilov said the standoff had reached a military "balance" that would be hard to break unless Western and Arab nations took a harder line with opposition groups with which they had links.
But he added that current foreign assistance to fighters required Russia not to leave its traditional ally defenceless and to continue supplying Assad's army with certain "defensive" arms.
"It is very sad to see very powerful foreign support for the opposition -- both financial and military. This foreign support only emboldens the diehard opposition, prompting them to continue their terrorist activity," Gatilov said.
"For us it is absolutely clear that terrorist groups are behind this -- Al-Qaeda and those groups that work with Al-Qaeda," he added in reference to the deadly wave of bombings that have recently struck Syria's biggest cities.
Twin suicide bombings in Damascus last week killed 55 people and wounded 372 outside a government security building.
An Islamist group that had been unknown before the Syrian revolt released a video on Saturday claiming responsibility for the attack.
But the head of the dissident Free Syrian Army on Sunday accused Assad's powerful air force intelligence of having links to Al-Qaeda it was using to discredit rebel groups.
Analysts see the potential entry of Al-Qaeda on either side of the standoff as a hugely troubling development that would raise the spectre of violence like that endured after the US invasion of Iraq.
Gatilov said Russia still had full trust in Annan's peace initiative even if the prospects for the two sides sitting down for talks seemed remote.
"It is hard to say how things will go from here. In the immediate term the prospects of the sides sitting down at the negotiating table are not there." "We have a situation where there is a certain balance between government forces and opposition groups. The worst outcome is for this stagnation to continue." Russia came under fierce criticism from Western and Arab countries for vetoing two previous UN Security Council resolutions that would have sanctioned Assad for his use of force.
It took some steps in the past month to distance itself personally from Assad while also inviting more moderate opposition groups to Moscow for talks.
Gatilov on Monday said Russia had "never said it has to be Assad and no one else. That is not our goal. We are not holding on to any specific political figures." He added that Russia's military was "trying to exercise some restraint" by not supplying Assad's forces with "offensive weapons" such as heavy tanks.
But he flatly dismissed the idea of Russia simply breaking its lucrative and long-standing military links with the Damascus regime.
"Of course, against the backdrop of such massive military support for the opposition -- we cannot but also take this into account.
"It would be wrong to leave the Syrian government without the means for self-defence."