Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov today scoffed at reports that Moscow had sent troops to strife-torn Syria to deter outside intervention and implied that the allegations were an attempt by pro-interventionists to disrupt an impending agreement on a path to peace based on a plan by United Nations special envoy Kofi Annan.
Mr. Lavrov said Russia is willing to step up political pressure on President Bashar al-Assad and support a UN resolution that would call on all sides in Syria's conflict to reach accord on such issues as daily cease-fires and humanitarian corridors to allow the Red Cross access to civilians, and to urge progress on negotiations to end the hostilities.
"The Security Council should support [such a resolution] not as an ultimatum, but as a basis for the continuing efforts by Kofi Annan aimed at reaching accord between all the Syrians, the government, and all opposition groups on all key issues, such as humanitarian corridors, halting hostilities by all parties, the beginning of a political dialogue, and offering access to the media," Lavrov said after talks with his Lebanese counterpart in Moscow today.
Russian officials say the allegation that Russia may have sent some "special forces" to Syria as a means of dissuading the US or NATO from intervening – for fear of clashing with Russian forces – was completely made up. In fact, they say, there are not even any Russian warships currently visiting the naval station in the Syrian port of Tartous and, even if there were, the naval marines on board those ships would be strictly for self-defense.
Lavrov said there is only one Russian ship currently at Tartous, a naval tanker named "Iman," which is en route to the Red Sea to resupply Russian combat ships engaged in antipiracy operations together with other international forces. Lavrov said the vessel could be carrying a "security unit" for its own protection.
"All Russian ships going in that direction these days have some special troops aboard, and nobody ever denied this," says Alexander Sharavin, director of the independent Institute of Political and Military Analysis in Moscow. "I don't believe Russian leaders would ever put troops into Syria, but especially not now, when you see the way the situation is changing there. I believe an international compromise on Syria has already been reached."
Russia senses an endgame
Some Russian experts say they sense the endgame in Syria is near at hand. Forces loyal to Assad drove rebel forces from most of their redoubts during the past weeks, and Western leaders are sounding more cautious about the complexities of getting involved in what increasingly looks like a multisided civil war that could put the West on the same side as Al Qaeda and other extremist Islamist forces.
"By now, the Syrian leadership has gained control over the entire territory of the country," and the rebels have no place from which to raise a flag and claim to have an alternative government worthy of outside assistance, says Vladimir Yevseyev, an expert with the Center for International Security at the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations, which trains Russian diplomats. "What we now increasingly see is the opposition resorting to terrorist methods, and this would create serious impediments to Western support. I'm not sure if Russia and the West have yet reached a compromise on what to do about Syria, but talks in that direction are going on."
Russia has vetoed two proposed Security Council resolutions that would have called for Assad to step aside or open the door to intervention by outside forces in a manner similar to what happened in Libya last year. Moscow has also taken a lot of heat for continuing to supply arms to Syria, a traditional client state, as the death toll mounted to what the UN now estimates at more than 8,000 people.
This week, a report by the independent Stockholm International Peace Research Institute found that arms exports to Syria ballooned by 600 percent between 2007 and 2011, compared with the previous five years, with Russia accounting for almost 80 percent of the supplies. Russian experts estimate that Moscow has about $5 billion in weapons contracts with Damascus in the pipeline.
But for all its traditional military-technical cooperation with Syria, Russian experts insist that Moscow is not so wedded to the Assad regime that it would defend it with military force.
"In the world today, it's ironically the West which is behaving like Bolsheviks, acting as though there is an international struggle where borders don't matter," says Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the independent Institute of Middle Eastern Studies in Moscow. "You may say it's also ironic that Russia and China are behaving like conservative powers, putting sovereignty above all else and insisting that countries be left to sort out their own internal disputes. But here we are. Russia is not going to protect Assad militarily, and let's hope the West is becoming more sober about the serious potential consequences of getting involved there."
At the same time, some experts say, Russia is aware of the damage it's done to relations with the West by its stubborn diplomatic defense of Assad, and may be ready to put greater pressure on the Syrian leader to come to terms with his opponents. Lavrov said Tuesday that Russia would urge Assad to obey a UN resolution based on Kofi Annan's plan, as long as it didn't involve "ultimatums."
"We think that the Syrian leadership should support [Annan's] approaches without delay, and we expect the armed and political opposition to do the same," Lavrov said. "We [Russia] do not support the Syrian government. We support the need to end hostilities and begin a political process. Russia will do everything it can for that, despite the decisions of the Syrian government, with many of which we disagree," he added.