AMMAN (Reuters) — Russia stood by President Bashar al-Assad on Thursday as Arab and Western countries sought to pile pressure on the Syrian leader to halt a violent crackdown on his opponents.
The Arab League has suspended Syria and given it until the end of the week to comply with an Arab peace plan to end bloodshed that has cost more than 3,500 lives, by a U.N. count.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whose country is one of Syria's few remaining foreign friends, said demands for Assad's removal would destroy the initiative, which calls for dialogue between the Syrian government and its foes.
"If some opposition representatives, with support from some foreign countries, declare that dialogue can begin only after President Assad goes, then the Arab League initiative becomes worthless and meaningless," Lavrov said.
He was speaking after talks with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who said the world must bring all the influence it can bear on Syria to change course.
"The future of Syria now depends on the ability of all of us to keep pressure on them to see that there is a need to stop this violence, to listen to the people, and to find a way to move forward," Ashton told a joint news conference in Moscow.
Lavrov said earlier a raid on Wednesday by the Free Syrian Army on an Airforce Intelligence complex on the outskirts of Damascus was "already completely similar to real civil war."
Opposition sources said Syrian army defectors had killed or wounded 20 security police in the early-morning attack, the first of its kind in an eight-month revolt against Assad.
It was not possible to verify the casualty toll. The authorities have not mentioned the attack. Syria has barred most foreign media since unrest began in March.
Residents of Harasta, the suburb where the Airforce Intelligence compound is located, said army deserters had fired rocket-propelled grenades and machineguns for 10 minutes, provoking a security sweep that netted about 70 people.
Together with Military Intelligence, Airforce Intelligence is in charge of preventing dissent within the armed forces.
Syria blames the violence on foreign-backed armed groups it says have killed more than 1,100 soldiers and police.
Hundreds of people have been killed this month, one of the bloodiest periods in the revolt that began in March. The United Nations says more than 3,500 people have died in the unrest.
Catherine Altalli, of the opposition Syrian National Council, said Wednesday's assault was understandable after the violence, detention and torture used on peaceful protesters.
"I am not saying this is right. There have to be limits," she said. "But what is unacceptable is that every day bodies come out with marks of torture from Air Force Intelligence buildings and other secret police dungeons across Syria."
Washington said it had few details and no confirmation of the incident, but that Assad was courting trouble.
Syria's pervasive security apparatus, dominated by Assad's minority Alawite sect, underpins the power structure that has enabled Assad and his father before him to rule for 41 years.
The bloodshed in Syria has angered other Arab and Western nations, whose criticism of Assad led to several attacks on diplomatic missions in Damascus and other cities this week.
Syrian state media said the authorities had vowed to prosecute anyone who carried out such attacks.
FRANCE SAYS HELPING OPPOSITION
France said it was encouraging Syrian opposition groups, which include the Paris-based Syrian National Council, but remained opposed to outside military intervention.
"We have had contacts with them... in any case we are helping them, we are encouraging them to get organized," Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told French BFM radio.
France was the first Western nation to recognize Libyan rebels in March, but has yet to endorse any Syrian group.