After months of stubbornly backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia signaled today that it's running out of patience and may be ready to pressure him into withdrawing Syrian troops from towns and cities – a key condition of the Moscow-backed peace plan authored by UN envoy Kofi Annan.
Experts say that Moscow feels the time is right to exercise its influence over Mr. Assad – earned by vetoing two previous UN Security Council resolutions that would have called on the Syrian leader to step down, among other things – to extract political and humanitarian concessions.
With the Syrian regime declaring a possibly premature military victory over its opponents, and Western leaders seeming to have lost all appetite for direct involvement in a near-civil war that's killed more than 9,000 people by UN estimates, Russian policy makers believe they have both the opportunity and the clout to help fashion a longer term settlement that might keep Assad in power and preserve Russia's privileges in its long time client, Syria.
"We never supported Assad's regime," says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the State Duma's international affairs committee. "Our point was always that both sides have to share in the responsibility. There has to be ceasefire, and they both have to stop shooting. Assad promised everybody, including Russia, that he will end this outrage. Let us see whether he is able to keep this pledge. If he doesn't, then Russia may change its attitude towards him, because it will mean that he has fallen out with us as well.
At least one big Western organization concurs that Russian policy on Syria may be changing.
"The Russian position has moved from what it was. They are genuinely supportive of the Annan plan," says Carroll Bogert, deputy executive director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, who is in Moscow this week to discuss Syria with the Russian foreign policy community. "But Moscow must still recognize that the violence is being perpetrated overwhelmingly by the Syrian government – and use its own close relations with the Syrian leadership to reduce that violence and ensure compliance with international efforts to end the human rights crisis."
Today Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met in Moscow with his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Muallem, and urged Syrian authorities to move more decisively to comply with their commitment to begin withdrawing troops and heavy weaponry from towns and cities by today, in preparation for a nationwide ceasefire to commence April 12.
"We told our Syrian colleagues that we think their actions could be more active, more decisive in regard to the fulfillment of the points of the plan," Mr. Lavrov told journalists in Moscow. "The Syrian leadership has confirmed its adherence to the commitments it has undertaken and provided us with information on when it will begin implementing the plan's provisions concerning the army… We are insistently demanding from our Syrian colleagues the strict fulfillment of their commitments," he added.
But Lavrov illustrated Moscow's ongoing embrace of the Assad regime by apparently accepting Mr.al-Muallem's assurances that troops were already being pulled out of some Syrian cities, a claim denied by the rebels and widely doubted around the world. He also reiterated Moscow's long-standing suspicion that Western and Arab powers may not be sincerely on board with the plan, and slammed key rebel groups for their refusal to agree to the ceasefire.
"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.
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.