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.
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."
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.
"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.