Russia: The time for Syrian democratic reforms has come (+video)

Russia's foreign minister is meeting with Assad in Damascus today, just days after Moscow blocked UN action against the regime.

By , Staff writer

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    Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (r.) speaks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during their meeting in Damascus on Feb. 7. Lavrov began talks with Assad on Tuesday just days after Russia and China blocked a United Nations Security Council effort to take stronger actions against Syria.
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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is in Syria today to meet with President Bashar al-Assad, just days after Russia and China blocked a United Nations Security Council effort to take stronger actions against Syria.

Mr. Assad’s supporters lined the streets of Damascus, waving flags – including a few Russian flags – to welcome Mr. Lavrov to the city, Reuters reports. Russia has been a staunch voice of opposition to international intervention in Syria. The Russian foreign ministry said Lavrov is there seeking “the swiftest stabilization of the situation in Syria on the basis of the swiftest implementation of democratic reforms whose time has come.”

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In the days since its veto of the Security Council resolution, Russia has been in “full damage-control mode” amid an onslaught of international criticism, The Christian Science Monitor reports. Russian analysts defend Moscow's opposition, by saying the Western-backed resolution lacked a strategy for the “state collapse and social catastrophe” that is likely to follow if Assad is overthrown.

"The USA and the West insisted that the resolution had to be passed, allowing outside interference, in order to stop the massacre," of Syrian civilians, says Pyotr Romanov, a political analyst with the official RIA-Novosti news agency in Moscow. "But has anyone given any thought to what happens next? Are you really trying to tell us that good moral forces will come to power? People with no blood on their hands, who will bring anything decent, much less democracy? Please."

"We were not against the resolution, but we wanted such a clause inserted to ensure that no military interference in Syria was intended, but our demand was not met," says [Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the State Duma's international affairs committee]. "We considered this to be a matter of principle, and we still do. . .  Russia feels a responsibility toward Syria, including military and technical cooperation, and our agreements stipulate mutual assistance in difficult situations. We don't have many such agreements with foreign states."

Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby said that Russia and China have lost “diplomatic credit" in the Arab world in the wake of their veto and said their vote implied to Mr. Assad that he had free rein for his crackdown on government opposition, Reuters reports.

Arabs would continue working to end the crisis but had a limited scope to act without international support, he said.

"We have put all our cards ... on the table. It is up to the United Nations to decide. The Security Council has failed," he said. "We have nothing else to do. We have 10 floors here (in the Arab League headquarters). Go find our planes or our tanks. What else do you expect us to do?"

Harvard professor Stephen Walt, writing in Foreign Policy, argues that last year's "triumph" in Libya – the UN Security Council's authorization of international intervention in order to protect civilians, which quickly became a tool for regime change – is now a major obstacle to international actions against Syria.

There are a number of reasons why the U.N. effort has failed thus far, but part of the blame lies with the liberal interventionists who abused the Security Council's mandate during last year's intervention in Libya.

But what if the Libyan precedent is one of the reasons why Russia and China aren't playing ball today? They supported Resolution 1973 back in 2011, and then watched NATO and a few others make a mockery of multilateralism in the quest to topple Qaddafi. The Syrian tragedy is pay-back time, and neither Beijing nor Moscow want to be party to another effort at Western-sponsored "regime change." It is hardly surprising that Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin condemned the failed resolution on precisely these grounds. In short, our high-handed manipulation of the SC process in the case of Libya may have made it harder to gain a consensus on Syria, which is arguably a far more important and dangerous situation.

Moscow may have been motivated in part by a desire to shore up the Assad regime because of the billions of dollars of arms contracts between the two countries. But Reuters reports that many analysts say the veto was “driven less by love for Assad or hope of a return to Syria’s pre-conflict status quo than by Prime Minister Putin’s desire to show … that he will deft Western efforts to impose political change on sovereign states in regions of big power competition.”

Russia may be merely seeking a “controlled demolition” of the Assad regime, without Western intervention, rather than a desire to prop up the current government, according to Reuters.

Meanwhile, the Syrian government’s onslaught has barreled on, emboldened by Russia and China’s defense. The BBC reports that the Syrian Army has been “pounding” Homs, one of a few rebel strongholds throughout the country. Residents worry that the artillery being fired on the city from its outskirts will soon turn into a ground assault, led by army tanks.

Activists told the BBC that at least 95 people were killed in Homs on Monday alone.

Turkey said it will launch an international effort of its own against Assad, BBC reports.

China, the other country that vetoed the UN resolution and thus also a target of international criticism, said it may send an envoy to Damascus.

"Today, China, because of its rapidly rising strength, sits at the main table on the global stage, and needs to get used to newly being in the limelight. The international community also needs to adjust to China's new role," said Ruan [Zongze, identified as a foreign affairs expert writing in The People’s Daily]. "Although this means that China will face even more difficult choices when it comes to handling complex international affairs, China must dare to speak its mind, and proactively create a just, rational global political process." 

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