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Russia’s Medvedev tells Assad to reform or go

President Dmitry Medvedev told Syria’s strongman leader Bashar al-Assad on Friday to either reform or resign while warning the West that Russia will fight outside attempts to oust him.

Medvedev said three days after Russia and China sparked global outrage by jointly vetoing a UN resolution on Syria that he wanted to see an end to the brutal crackdown on protesters as much as Europe and the United States.

“Russia wants as much as the other countries for Syria to end the bloodshed and demands that the Syrian leadership conduct the necessary reforms,” Medvedev said in televised remarks.

“If the Syrian leadership is unable to undertake these reforms, it will have to go,” he said in one of his strongest public comments on the crisis.

But he quickly reasserted Russia’s earlier position by saying that the best the West could do was support talks and not meddle.

“This is something that has to be decided not by NATO or individual European countries but by the people and the leadership of Syria,” Medvedev said.

“Russia will continue standing against attempts to legitimise through the UN Security Council unilateral sanctions aimed at toppling various regimes,” he said.

Russia vetoed the UN Security Council sanctions resolution against its Soviet-era ally on Tuesday after arguing that moves aimed against the Syrian leadership could encourage protesters to resort to violence.

Diplomats said the no-vote was spearheaded by Russia and joined by China in a sign of the Asian giant’s support for Moscow’s increasingly strident stance against foreign intervention.

The rare move put Russia on the receiving end of fierce international criticism and saw Medvedev on Friday spend a part of a Kremlin meeting laying out a defence of his case.

“In essence, the text that was being proposed was a text that once again permitted the use of force,” he stressed.

The Kremlin chief had previously accused some in the Syrian opposition of having ties to “terrorists” in comments underscoring the extent of Russia’s divide with the West in the closing months of his term.

Medvedev has promised to hand his powers to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in a March job swap that will see the former spy return to the presidency after a 2000-2008 spell in which he often bickered with the West.

But the incumbent president has had his own share of disagreements over what Moscow interprets as efforts by the West to insert its own allies in strategic countries of North Africa and the Middle East.

Medvedev said the Syria veto was largely influenced by the NATO-led campaign in Libya that Russia opposed but did not block at the Security Council in March.

Russia had criticised the Libya offensive as illegitimate and Medvedev warned on Friday that he would continue resisting all actions he thought were aimed at toppling governments that were on bad terms with the West.

He said the drafts on Libya and Syria reverted “to simple pseudo-legal tricks that let (nations) achieve goals with the use of the military.”

Analysts said Russia’s current stance threatens to alienate it from the new generation of leaders who managed to topple Moscow-backed allies in the Arab world.

That message was delivered to Moscow by a visiting Syrian opposition delegation in September and repeated in some Russian media since.

The foreign ministry responded on Friday with a statement proclaiming conditional support for Arab protest movements.

“We are sympathetic to the Arab people’s drive for a better life,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a statement.

“We are convinced that they will be able to determine their own fate.”

The day after the UN vote foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said Moscow would be hosting another Syrian opposition delegation later this month.