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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.

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A few days ago, Russia and China used their veto vote on the UN Security Council to block a Western-backed resolution calling for Assad to step down. Lavrov's scheme would leave Assad in power, at least for the time being, while a transition to a new constitutional order was worked out among the parties and put to a public referendum.

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"Russia's diplomatic moves are three months too late," says Vladimir Sazhin, an expert with the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow. "The situation grows more strained with each passing day. Some opposition forces might have agreed to contacts and maybe even talks with the regime some time ago, but they won't do it now…. Russia and China's decision to veto the Security Council resolution caused a very stormy reaction among the opposition, as well as in the West and some parts of the Arab world. The possible space for talks has narrowed to a really tiny spot."

White House spokesman Jay Carney was quoted by the official RIA Novosti agency as saying that Russia "must realize that betting everything on Assad is a recipe for failure, not just for Russia’s interests in Syria, but for the stability of the region and for Syria’s future."

Syria has been a Soviet and Russian client state since 1971, and is Moscow's sole remaining political partner in the Middle East. Russia's only foreign naval base is at the Syrian Mediterranean port of Tartous, and there are approximately $5 billion worth of Russian arms contracts in the pipeline with Damascus.

Some Russian experts argue that the Russian initiative is doomed because key players – mainly the US and the Arab League – are determined to see Assad removed in order to destroy Syria's alliance with Iran, and they will not accept any outcome that falls short of that result.

"Even if Lavrov and Assad could agree to a democratic transition, we will not see a favorable response from the opposition, and we'll continue to see the US dismiss any chance of peaceful dialogue working," says Dmitry Suslov, an expert with the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, an influential, independent Moscow think tank.

"The US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia see in this Syrian mess a chance to break Damascus's alliance with Iran, and see that as an important precondition to isolating Iran. It's much bigger than just Syria," he says.

"This is very much the official Russian view of what's going on, and that's why Moscow holds out little hope that its diplomatic initiatives will succeed. The West will tell the opposition not to participate, and the violence will escalate. Ultimately, this is all about Iran," says Mr. Suslov.

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