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Russia Delivers Stern Warning To Ally Syria

Originally published on October 7, 2011 4:27 pm

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev issued a blunt message to Syria's leadership on Friday, saying it should either reform or step down.

Medvedev's statement in Moscow was significant because Russia has been one of Syria's strongest allies. Just four days earlier, Russia and China used their U.N. vetoes to block a resolution that could have led to tougher diplomatic measures against Syria.

"If the Syrian leadership is incapable of conducting such reforms, it will have to go, but this decision should be taken not in NATO or certain European countries, it should be taken by the Syrian people and the Syrian leadership," Medvedev said.

At least seven people were killed Friday when Syria's security forces opened fire on rallies across the country, though the capital, Damascus, was relatively quiet.

Heavy Security In The Capital

At the grand Omayyad Mosque in the old city of Damascus, there was a heavy security presence for the traditional Friday prayers. Soldiers in uniform and plainclothes security men were out in force as President Bashar Assad's government sought to send the message that no protests would be tolerated.

"Today, nobody can win the battle in the street," said Waddah Abd Rabbo, chief editor of Al-Watan newspaper. Like many in Damascus, where support for the government is still strong, he says the protests must end and talks must begin.

"Everybody wants to see reforms in the country," he said, "from both sides. It's not only people who are demonstrating. Reform needs all of us to sit down and decide on the future of the country."

Russia's stern public message to Assad appears to be part of a strategy to promote negotiations. Russia has invited some opposition members to Moscow next week to encourage dialogue with the government.

No Letup In Violence

But the death toll continues to mount.

A Kurdish leader, Mishaal Tammo, was shot dead in his home in northeastern Syria. He was a member of the newly formed opposition group, the Syrian National Council.

In Damascus, another prominent opposition figure, Riad Saif was badly beaten at a rally outside a mosque and rushed to a hospital, according to his family.

This week, activists threw red dye into public fountains. It was intended to shake up this quiet capital and the international community, according to an activist who declined to reveal her name for fear of retaliation.

"We dyed the pools of Damascus," she said. "Damascus is actually bleeding."

More blood has been spilled in Homs, Syria's third largest city, where activists say four people were shot during protests Friday.

A series of targeted killings has shaken Homs - as well as skirmishes between the army and army defectors backed by armed citizens. It is a new phase in the uprising, according to Rabbo, the newspaper chief.

"Today we have a small civil war. We have to say it and it's happening every day in Homs," he said. "You don't hear it, maybe nobody hears about it a lot, but it's happening."

After seven months on the streets, attitudes are hardening. One Damascus activist who supports peaceful protest says it is hard to stop Syrians from defending their homes and families against repeated assaults from a security service determined to crush dissent.

"We keep having these arguments about people who suffered so much and they are rapidly rising to the boiling point," the activist said.

The death count is close to 3,000 now, according to the United Nations. Russia's surprise ultimatum — reform or leave — signals that even Syria's staunchest allies are demanding an end to the bloodshed.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

Reform or step down, that was the stark message today to Syria's president from Russia. That statement came days after Russia, along with China, vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution. That resolution would have condemned Syria's crackdown on anti-government protesters. And today, in Syria, at least seven were killed when security forces opened fire on rallies.

But as NPR's Deborah Amos reports now from Damascus, the capital was relatively quiet.

(SOUNDBITE OF CALL TO PRAYER)

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: I am standing out in front of the Omayyad Mosque in the old city of Damascus. It's Friday prayers. Out here on the stone square there is a heavy security presence. On my left is a van full of soldiers in uniform. And behind me, there are a group of plain clothes security men who are leaning on a stone wall. All this security is very obvious. It's meant to send a message to anyone at this mosque that no protest after prayers will be tolerated here.

WADDA ABD RABBO: Today, nobody can win the battle in the street.

AMOS: That's Waddah Abd Rabbo, chief editor of Al Watan newspaper. And like many in Damascus, where support for the government is strong, he says protests must end and talks must begin.

RABBO: Everybody wants to see reforms as a country. It's not only people who are demonstrating. Reform needs all of us to sit down and decide what is the future of this country.

AMOS: Russia's stern public message to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad appears to be part of a strategy to promote negotiations, inviting some opposition members to Moscow next week to encourage dialogue with the government.

But the grim death toll continued to mount. A Kurdish leader, Mishaal Tammo, was shot dead in his home in northeastern Syria today. He was a member of the newly-formed opposition group, the Syrian National Council.

In Damascus, another prominent opposition figure, Riad Saif, was badly beaten at a rally outside a mosque and he was rushed to a hospital, according to his family.

This week, activists threw red dye into public fountains. It was a way to shake up this quiet capital and the international community, says this activist who can't reveal her name for fear of retaliation.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Our response, yeah, like, this is our blood. If you cannot see enough of our blood, we dyed the pool of Damascus for you. Damascus is actually bleeding.

AMOS: More blood has been spilled in Homs, Syria's third largest city – four were shot during protests today, according to activists. A series of targeted assassinations has shaken Homs, as well as skirmishes between the army and army defectors backed by armed citizens.

It's a new phase in the uprising, says newspaper chief Rabbo.

RABBO: Today we have a small civil war. We have to say it. And it's happening every day in Homs. You don't hear it. Nobody hear about it a lot but it's happening.

AMOS: And this activist in Damascus agreed with reports that weapons are flowing into Homs.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Like everything else, they are much exaggerated. But I cannot say that they are not all true. Homs has taken too much.

AMOS: Do you think that people should be armed now?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No, not now. Not ever.

AMOS: But after seven months on the streets, even this activist who supports peaceful protest, says it's hard to argue against Syrians who want to defend their homes and families against repeated assaults from a security service determined to crush dissent.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We keep having these arguments about people who suffered so much and they are rapidly rising to the boiling point.

AMOS: The death count is close to 3,000 now, according to the United Nations. Russia's surprise ultimatum today - reform or leave – signals that even Syria's staunchest allies demand an end to the bloodshed.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Damascus. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.