UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called for peace talks on Syria to take place as soon as possible. A new US-Russia proposal aims to defuse Syria's civil war by overseeing direct negotiations between its leaders.
Speaking at a joint press conference with Russia's foreign minister in Sochi on Friday, the UN secretary general called on international leaders to coordinate a Syrian peace conference in Geneva soon.
"We should not lose the momentum," Ban told reporters, adding that there was "high expectation that this meeting should be held as soon as possible."
Earlier this month, US and Russian officials called for renewed negotiation efforts to take place in June. Thus far, no date has been set.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov echoed Ban's message.
"The sooner the better … the key thing now is who is ready to take part on the Syrian side," said Lavrov.
Moscow wants the inclusion of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in any Syrian negotiations. However, both Western leaders and the Syrian opposition have set his resignation from the presidency as a precondition to any talks.
On Thursday, both US President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister said they would increase pressure on the Syrian president to force him to relinquish power.
Western leaders have come under mounting pressure from the international community to intervene in Syria amid suspicion of recent chemical weapons usage.
The humanitarian crisis unleashed by the conflict has also motivated them to seek a quick solution before the war destabilizes the region. Over 80,000 people have died and more than 1 million driven into neighboring countries since fighting began three years ago, according to UN figures.
Russia defends arms shipments
The UN and Western leaders have in the past criticized Moscow for continuing to supply President al-Assad's military with weapons. The Russian foreign minister repeated Moscow's previous defense of selling weapons to the Syria, which contends stem from contracts signed before the outbreak of war three years ago.
"I do not understand why the media is trying to create a sensation out of this," Lavrov told reporters on Friday.
"We have not hidden that we supply weapons to Syria under signed contracts, without violating any international agreements, or our own legislation," he said, adding that none of the weapons gave the al-Assad regime an unfair advantage against opposition forces.
Israel's justice minister, Tzipi Livni, criticized Russia's refusal to halt weapons shipments to the region. She was responding in part to an article from the Friday edition of the New York Times, which reported on a Russian shipment of advanced antiship cruise missiles, deemed more effective than the previous version of the Yakhonts missiles.
"The transfer of arms to Syria is clearly not positive and does not contribute to the stability of the region," Livni said, according to the news agency AFP.
Israel says that the arms threaten its own national security, in particular the possibility of Russia supplying al-Assad's military with S-300 surface-to-air missiles, which could reach Israeli territory.
Citing the right to defend itself, the Israeli government recently staged airstrikes on arms heading within Syrian territory heading for Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon.
UN wants to send weapons inspectors
Both Ban and Lavrov renewed calls on Damascus to allow weapons inspectors into Syria to investigate claims that both sides had deployed chemical weapons in recent months.
"It is deplorable that the team could not visit Syria to do an investigation on the ground," Ban said, according to the news agency DPA.
Less than two weeks ago, the UN said witness testimony pointed to evidence of the use of the chemical weapon sarin, possibly by opposition forces or al-Assad's military. However, the investigations needed further verification and concrete evidence to be complete.
President al-Assad dismissed the claims as "false and fabricated."
kms/ipj (AFP, Reuters)