Russian officials pledged Monday to "study" a new proposal by the Arab League that would create a joint UN peacekeeping force for strife-torn Syria, but Moscow appears to be hardening its position against any outside interference in Syria's increasingly civil-warlike turmoil.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said some basic questions would have to be answered before Moscow could support the proposal. The Kremlin suspects that the Arab League and the West are planning to back a war for regime change in Syria regardless of anything the UN Security Council decides, Russian experts say.
Mr. Lavrov, who claims to have convinced Syrian President Bashar al Assad to support dialogue and deep constitutional reforms during a visit to Damascus last week, said there would need to be a semblance of peace – based on some level of negotiated accord between the conflicting sides – before peacekeeping forces could be sent in.
"In order to deploy a peacekeeping mission, you need the agreement of the receiving side," Lavrov told a press conference in Moscow today. "In other words, you need to agree something resembling a ceasefire. But the problem is that the armed groups that are fighting the Syrian regime do not answer to anyone and are not controlled by anyone."
Moscow has been badly stung by a torrent of criticism following its veto earlier this month of a UN Security Council resolution called for Mr. Assad to step aside. Hence, Lavrov's emphasis Monday on the need to promote dialogue and reconciliation in Syria may be just a velvet-gloved way of repeating Russia's refusal to countenance any outside interference in Syria, experts suggest.
"Can you imagine peacekeeping forces without the agreement of one of the sides? It means military invasion," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy journal.
Syria dismisses league proposal
The Syrian government today dismissed the Arab League proposal in a statement quoted by the official SANA news agency. "Syria rejects decisions that are a flagrant interference in the country's internal affairs and a violation of its national sovereignty," it said.
Russia has strongly opposed any international efforts to isolate Assad, despite a nearly yearlong uprising that has killed thousands. Its resistance is partly due to its own longstanding political and economic ties to the Assad regime, but increasingly it resists because it believes interventions into Middle Eastern states orchestrated by the West and the Saudi Arabia-dominated Arab League are pursuing geopolitical goals that have little to do with democracy promotion and run counter to Russian interests, experts say.
"It would be foolish to deny that Russia has mercantile interests in Syria, but it's no longer mainly about that," says Mr. Lukyanov. "Whatever the original causes of the upheaval in Syria, we can see that it is becoming a sectarian civil war, in which the opposition side is heavily armed and no more democratic than the government. Russia is asking why the international community should be taking one side. We know nothing about this Syrian opposition, but it looks like this is becoming part of a wider struggle between Sunnis and Shia in the region, and why do we want to be part of that?"
Sergei Markov, an expert with close ties to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, says the Kremlin sees the goal of overthrowing Assad as a first step to a coming war against Iran – something Russia also deeply opposes – and is determined to block it by all diplomatic means.
"We've been deceived over and over again," Mr. Markov says. "We consider the claims that Assad is massacring people are falsifications, basically a pretext to introduce troops and start a war there. We saw the US invade Iraq on false pretenses. Then they lied about the humanitarian situation in Libya, and persuaded Russia to allow a UN resolution on a no-fly zone to protect civilians. Why should we believe them now? (Russia thinks) the purpose of the West is not peace but war in Syria. They have their own goals which they are cynically pursuing."
Some Russian experts point to signs that Al Qaeda is becoming involved in the Syrian mayhem, including recent suicide bombings in Damascus and Aleppo, as evidence that the West does not know what it's doing in the region.
"The West talks in terms of noble goals, but the actions they undertake tend to wreck any stability, threaten the lives of millions, and leave people worse off than before," says Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the independent Institute of Middle Eastern Studies in Moscow. "Now they're effectively going to become allies of Al Qaeda in Syria? It would be better if Western countries confined themselves to managing their own affairs more effectively."
"I don't carry any brief for the Kremlin, but in the case of Syria, the Russian aim is to try to minimize negative outcomes," Mr. Satanovsky adds. "Russian approaches may be old fashioned and conservative but, I'm sorry to say, they're more rational than current Western policies,"