BEIRUT — President Bashar Assad of Syria “is not bluffing” about his determination to stay in power, Russia’s foreign minister said in comments broadcast Friday, as the United Nations said arrangements were made for the release of 21 UN peacekeepers held by rebels.
Also, the World Food Program said it aims to feed 2.5 million Syrians by next month, up from 1.7 million now. Need has risen as more Syrians are displaced by the civil war and as the country’s economy disintegrates in the face of the chaos.
The uprising against Assad began two years ago with largely peaceful protests, but shifted into a brutal civil war after a harsh government crackdown on dissent. More than 70,000 people have been killed, according to UN estimates.
The conflict has been deadlocked for months, with neither side able to gain the upper hand, although the rebels have scored a series of strategic victories in recent weeks, seizing a provincial capital, capturing Syria’s largest dam, and overrunning small military bases.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the BBC that the Syrian leader is digging in and “is not going to leave.’”
“We know this for sure, and all those who get in touch with him know that he is not bluffing,” Lavrov said.
He added that Russia, a close Syria ally, will not pressure Assad to leave. “It’s not for me to decide, it’s not for anybody else to decide, except the Syrian people,” Lavrov said.
The opposition has criticized the West for not helping arm rebels as Russia and Iran support the regime with weapons.
Earlier this week, Britain said it would provide armored vehicles and other equipment to the rebels, while stopping short of arming them. The West has balked at sending weapons, fearing they could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists fighting in the rebel ranks.
In India, Assad adviser Buthaina Shaaban said Britain’s decision will prolong the fighting. She alleged that most of the rebels are linked to Al Qaeda or conservative Islamic groups.
“Britain should not think that terror activities by such groups in Syria will not one day go back to haunt Europe or Britain,” said Shaaban, who is in India for talks.
Meanwhile, the United Nations made arrangements for the release of its peacekeepers, all Filipinos, who were seized by rebels on Wednesday.
The parties involved in the arrangements would presumably include both the rebels holding the peacekeepers and government forces reported to be shelling the area.