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Russian comments on Syria hint at mounting disapproval of Assad

Russia appears to be running out of patience with Assad's heavy hand, and is preparing to push the Syrian leader for political and humanitarian concessions.

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"It is clear that success is possible only if the rest of the members of the international community who have influence on the Syrian sides approach this task with the same sense of responsibility," Lavrov said. And Russia "cannot ignore the well-known fact that Annan's proposals still have not been accepted by several if not the majority of opposition groups, including the (Western-backed) Syrian National Council," he added. 

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The Syrian opposition has largely accepted Annan's proposal, although it rejected the regime's request for a written guarantee that it would lay down arms. 

Opposition leaders said today they remain committed to the cease-fire, even though activists in Syria said they've seen no signs of a troop pullback. "Soldiers are not being withdrawn from towns and villages," said Fadi al-Yassin, an activist in the Idlib province close to Turkey. "On the contrary, reinforcements are being sent."

Syria has been a key Russian client state since 1971, and remains a major importer of Russian arms. Russia's only foreign naval base is at Tartous, Syria. Following the overthrow of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, after Russia acquiesced to a UN resolution allowing NATO to intervene to protect civilians, Moscow dug in its heels against any foreign intervention in Syria.

"Russian diplomats are walking a tightrope just now," says Georgi Mirsky, a leading researcher at the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow. "We're positioning ourselves so that, in case Assad is deposed, we'll be able to tell the world that we warned him and tried to bring him around to reason. If he holds on to power – and it's looking 50-50 right now – we can tell him we always had his back."

Next week Moscow will also host unspecified representatives of Syrian opposition groups, in an effort to find common ground, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced Tuesday.

Lavrov also announced that Russia is prepared to immediately shift some of its observer force based on the nearby Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to take part in a UN mission that would oversee implementation of the ceasefire. He did not indicate how many Russian troops might be involved.

"Syrian reality has shifted in the past few weeks, and now it's clear there is no way to remove Assad from power in the foreseeable future," says Sergei Strokan, an international affairs columnist with the pro-business Moscow daily Kommersant. "Everyone needs to work within that set of facts now, if anything is to be achieved. The most depressing thing is that we face not only rampant distrust between the Syrian regime and its opponents, but also between the big world powers.

"Russia suspects the West of a hidden agenda to remove Assad, while the West thinks Russia only wants to prop up its friend Assad. Every party is thinking not about how to achieve a settlement, but about how to extract advantages from this situation. This is what makes this peace process such a Sisyphean task," Mr. Strokan adds.

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