International sanctions targeting Syria's repressive regime have depleted its financial reserves by half _ and Damascus is actively trying to evade them, the French foreign minister said Tuesday.
Alain Juppe called for a solid international response to such Syrian "maneuvers" as he opened a Paris meeting of some 57 countries including Arab League states to reinforce sanctions against President Bashar Assad.
The actual size of Syria's foreign currency reserves isn't known, but it was believed to be around $17 billion at the start of the uprising in March 2011. Juppe didn't specify how much of Syria's finances were impacted by sanctions, but said "our information" is that they have been cut in half.
Juppe said Syrian authorities "continue to actively seek alternate routes to get around these sanctions, others (countries) are more or less offering alternative deals. We must respond to these maneuvers."
Tuesday's closed-door talks between diplomats and finance ministry officials from the Arab world, the European Union, the U.S. and others _ under the "Friends of Syria" banner _ are meant to keep up pressure on Assad despite his commitment to a cease-fire plan laid out by special envoy Kofi Annan and aimed at ending 13 months of violence in Syria.
"Our meeting is in itself a message: the Syrian regime must understand that it cannot continue its repression with impunity, and refuse the political transition laid out under the Annan plan and expected by the Syrian people," Juppe said.
Two Arab League nations _ Syrian neighbors Iraq and Lebanon _ were not attending. They have said that enforcing sanctions with Syria is hard for them to carry out, according to diplomats.
Western diplomats say a string of EU, U.S. and other sanctions are affecting Assad by curbing Syria's ability to export oil and impede the ability of his cronies and relatives to do business abroad.
Europe has agreed to sanctions against Syria's oil sector _ depriving Damascus of the market for nearly 90 percent of its oil export revenues. The regime is losing about $400 million in revenues each month, or about $2 billion since November, French diplomats have said.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused unspecified foreign forces of trying to thwart Annan's plan by encouraging the opposition to continue fighting the government and trying to substitute the U.N. Security Council with unofficial groups like the Friends of Syria.
Syrian opposition members, meeting Tuesday in Moscow, say they have sensed a shift in Russia's stance on the conflict in their homeland and voiced hope that Russia will crank up pressure on Assad's regime.
Haytham Manna, the leader in exile of the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria, said Russia has voiced support for democratic changes in Syria and believes the Syrians themselves should determine the country's future.
"The representatives of the Russian government aren't inclined to support the idea of preservation of the dictatorial regime," Manna told a news conference. "They are talking about the need for continuing democratic changes, and it's very important for us."
Abdul-Aziz al-Kheir, a spokesman for the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria, said Russia's position has been changing over the past two months and "particularly fast over the past two weeks."
Syrian opposition members want Russia to apply its power to persuade Assad the Annan plan.
"Russia has all the necessary levers to apply pressure on Assad's government and help Annan's mission," Manna said.
Manna said that while the opposition was encouraged by the talks in Moscow, differences remain. Russia continues to be strongly critical of Assad opponents using force, Manna said, while the opposition views it as a legitimate response to the violence on the part of the regime.
He said that the opposition delegation also sought to assuage Russia's concerns about the rise of Islamism in Syria and prospects of continuing violence in the country in case of regime change.
The opposition delegation is expected to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov later Tuesday.
Lavrov has recently criticized Assad for dragging his feet on reforms and using excessive force. He and other Russian officials have strongly urged their old ally to observe Annan's plan.
Russia, along with China, has twice shielded Assad's regime from U.N. sanctions over its deadly crackdown on a popular uprising. But Moscow has strongly supported Annan's cease-fire plan to end 13 months of violence and begin talks on Syria's political future.
Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.