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Russia says it offers alternative path to peace in Syria

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said he convinced Assad to make concessions, but Russian experts say his visit to Damascus was more about saving face for Russia than ending the violence.

By Correspondent / February 8, 2012

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov seen during a news conference in Moscow, Wednesday, Feb. 8. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wants his vice president to hold talks with the opposition groups, Russia's foreign minister said, as activists reported that dozens died Wednesday in government bombings of cities and villages across Syria.

Mikhail Metzel/AP

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Moscow

Russian diplomacy can offer an alternative path to civil peace in Syria, if only the West will give it a chance, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednedsday after a visit to Damascus in which he met with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

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Mr. Lavrov said he convinced Mr. Assad to hold an open dialogue with all political forces in his embattled country, and to agree to hold a national referendum on a new constitution for the country. 

"It's clear that efforts to stop use of force must coincide with a declaration of dialogue between all political forces," Lavrov said. "Today we have received confirmation of the Syrian president's readiness to work toward this task."

But even Russian foreign policy experts say that the visit was more about damage control for Russia, which last week vetoed a UN resolution that called for taking stronger action against Assad. They say it is unlikely to appease the West, which is increasingly weighing backing the rebels militarily.

"The only success we can discern in Lavrov's visit to Syria is that Russia showed that it is trying to solve the conflict and that even if it vetoed the Security Council resolution, it still wants to play an important role," says Georgy Mirsky, an expert with the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations, which trains Russian diplomats. 

"But, the thing is, this visit was just symbolic. No agreements were signed. Lavrov spent three hours in Damascus and talked only with the president and his people. Assad repeated things he'd said before," Mr. Mirksy says. "Russia's UN veto has just hurt Moscow's reputation. After the veto, the West is leaning more toward supporting the Syrian rebels. So, we'll get the Libyan scenario, without overt Western interference. Saudi Arabia and Qatar will supply the rebels with arms, and Turkey will back them. I don't see any light ahead, it's a dead end."

More than 5,400 people have died in the 11-month-old uprising. As Syrian security forces cracked down hard, some opposition groups have turned to armed resistance, driving the situation into what looks increasingly like a sectarian civil war. Even as Lavrov sat down to talk with Assad in Damascus, Syrian forces continued to bombard the rebel stronghold of Homs, reportedly killing more than 300 people since Feb. 3.

Lavrov said that direct foreign involvement in the process a bad idea because "attempts to predict the outcome of the national dialogue are, generally speaking, not the world community’s business."

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