Brief Russia-West détente on Syria conflict comes to an end

Russia rejected an invitation to Paris to discuss next steps for Syria, saying that world leaders seemed more intent on helping the rebels than on brokering peace. 


Russia today categorically refused to join about a dozen Western and Arab foreign ministers gathering in Paris to discuss ways to pressure Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to abide by the terms of the United Nations peace plan, alleging that the meeting's intent was "counterproductive."

Moscow's self-exclusion from the latest "Friends of Syria" conference – which will include top policymakers from the US, Germany, France, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and other countries – suggests that the recent reconciliation between Russia and the West over how to approach the Syrian crisis may be short-lived.

In fact, though both Russia and the West say they support the plan crafted by UN envoy to Syria Kofi Annan, each appears to have a dramatically different interpretation of what results should flow from its implementation.

Speaking to journalists in Paris, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe accused Moscow of seeking to prop up Mr. Assad as he continues to use brutal military and secret police methods to suppress his political opposition. Syria's year-old civil conflict has killed more than 9,000 people, according to UN estimates.

"I regret that Russia continues to lock itself into a vision that isolates it more and more, not just from the Arab world but also from the international community," Mr. Juppe said.

Meanwhile, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Lukashevich told reporters in Moscow that they'd turned down the invitation – which was only delivered on short notice – because the Paris gathering is just the latest in a series of "one-sided" sessions aimed at helping the rebels.

"This meeting is apparently aimed not at looking for the basis to launch inter-Syrian dialogue, but just opposite, at deepening the divisions between the opposition and Damascus by encouraging the international isolation of the latter," Mr. Lukashevich said.

France wants the current UN observer mission in Syria expanded beyond the 250 monitors Assad has accepted to oversee the cease-fire, and President Nicholas Sarkozy said today that he supports the creation of Western-backed "humanitarian corridors" within Syria to create safe channels for getting aid into beleaguered opposition strongholds – a plan Russia views as a first step toward outright Western military intervention in the country.

Russia, which vetoed two UN Security Council resolutions on Syria, came together with other leading powers to support the Annan plan, which kicked in a week ago with a cease-fire that was supposed to be followed by negotiations between Assad and the rebels, followed by elections.

The key problem, Russian experts claim, is that Western and Arab leaders want to use the UN-mandated cease-fire as a breathing space in which rebel forces can regroup and rearm before returning to the military attack against Assad's government.

Russian leaders have lately hosted Syria's foreign minister as well as members of the anti-Assad opposition, and insist they are eager to use Russian influence to bring the sides together, find needed compromises, and restore stability. Yesterday Russia announced that it has halted all supplies of small arms to Syria, in the interests of supporting the cease-fire.

Moscow, which has about $5 billion in weapons contracts with Damascus, had previously refused to countenance any cutoff at all.

"Russia is completely sincere in its support for the Annan plan, and we understand its goal as finding common ground for peace between the government and opposition in Syria," says Sergei Markov, vice president of the Plekhanov Economic University in Moscow and a frequent adviser to President-elect Vladimir Putin.

"We believe this plan has potential, and that it's achieving some success on the ground. But Western leaders still maintain that Assad should leave and the opposition should come to power. So, we must conclude that they are not sincere in their support for the Annan plan," he says.

"Though we joined together to accept this plan, it's becoming clear that Russia and the West have completely different ideas of what it should accomplish," he says. 


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