The West is trying to blackmail Russia into agreeing to a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force to remove Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad from power, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted today.
Mr. Lavrov's accusation came as UN envoy Kofi Annan arrived in Moscow for talks with President Vladimir Putin about how to save his faltering peace plan, which calls for a cease-fire, UN observers on the ground, and negotiations between rebels and regime for a mutually acceptable transitional government. Russia strongly backed that plan, but no part of it has worked and the mandate for the UN observer force is set to run out on July 20.
Lavrov claimed the West is threatening not to renew the observers' mandate unless Russia votes for a new Security Council resolution under Chapter Seven, which might open the door to military intervention.
"To our great regret, there are elements of blackmail," Lavrov told a news conference in Moscow today. "We are being told that if you do not agree to passing the resolution under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, then we shall refuse to extend the mandate of the monitoring mission.... We consider it to be an absolutely counterproductive and dangerous approach, since it is unacceptable to use monitors as bargaining chips."
But the Russians appear to admit that they have no idea what can be done in Syria, and Lavrov acknowledged that despite months of tough opposition to Western anti-Assad initiatives, there is little or nothing Moscow can do to halt Syria's spiral into civil war.
"They tell us that we should persuade Assad to step down of his own free will. This is simply unrealistic," Lavrov said. "He will not leave, not because we are protecting him, but because he has the support of a very significant part of the country’s population.... We will accept any decision by the Syrian people on who will govern Syria, as long as it comes from the Syrians themselves."
Those options now seem to be narrowing sharply, leaving Russia bracing for the likely loss of its last Middle Eastern client state as the Assad regime's grip on power steadily declines, experts say.
Last week Russia sent a flotilla of warships to the eastern Mediterranean, half of which are giant landing ships capable of carrying large numbers of people, leading to speculation that Moscow is preparing to evacuate tens of thousands of Russian citizens from Syria.
"All attempts to mediate an inter-Syrian solution appear to have failed," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign-policy journal. "The opposition won't accept any formula that doesn't involve Assad leaving first, and that isn't acceptable on the other side. Another problem is that the opposition has no unified voice. Russia's best bet was to participate in negotiations leading to some sort of smooth transition, but that has foundered.
"If there is a forceful overthrow of Assad, Russia will lose any points it has accumulated from taking part in the diplomatic process. On the other hand, we can't afford to just abandon Assad, throw him and all the Syrian minorities who depend on him to the dogs, because that will be just bloody chaos," Mr. Lukyanov says.
When Mr. Annan meets with Mr. Putin tomorrow, he is not likely to win any concessions from the Russian president on military intervention or even sanctions against the Assad regime, experts say.
"No doubt Annan is under pressure from the West to [twist Putin's arm]," says Georgi Mirski, an expert with the official Institute of International Relations and World Economy in Moscow.
"Maybe someone still imagines that Putin might change his firm position on this, turn against Assad, and that will make Assad give up and leave Syria. That's a bit naive," he says.
Russian experts say that Putin will almost certainly tell Annan – and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is due in Moscow later this week – that the Kremlin still supports the Annan plan as the best path to peace in Syria, and would happily mediate negotiations for a transitional government to eventually replace Assad, but it will not ease its now-familiar resistance to any outside military intervention or harsh sanctions against the Assad regime.
"There is a red line that Russia will not cross, and that is authorizing any forceful intervention in Syria from outside," says Lukyanov. "No amount of turmoil, no terrible atrocities, nothing will convince Russia to vote for a Libya-style operation against Syria. It looks bad, but Russia is convinced that after the fall of Assad it will only be much worse."