Russia and the West lock horns over Syria

President Putin offered no indication that Russia will support a UN Security Council resolution backed by the US, Britain, and France that would open the door for military intervention.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin (r.) shakes hands with United Nations special envoy Kofi Annan in Moscow, Tuesday, July 17.

Hopes for a diplomatic compromise between Russia and the West over any kind of an orderly transition from the regime of Bashar al-Assad petered out Tuesday – amid fulsome support for peace and civic accord in Syria from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Meeting in the Kremlin with UN envoy Kofi Annan, even as fighting raged in the streets of Damascus, President Putin insisted that the Kremlin will "do everything" to back the faltering six-point peace plan, which envisages a cease-fire, UN observers on the ground, and talks between rebels and regime over a transitional government.

"From the very start, from the first steps, we supported and continue to support your efforts aimed at restoring civil peace," Putin told Mr. Annan, according to Russian news agencies. "We will do everything that depends on us to support your efforts," he added.

But the Kremlin leader offered no indication that Russia will support a UN Security Council resolution to be put forward Wednesday. The proposed resolution, backed by the US, Britain, and France, would extend the UN observer mission by 45 days – the mandate is otherwise set to expire on Friday – but would put future implementation of the Annan plan under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which might open the door to the legal use of outside force.

Russia wants the UN observer team's mandate renewed without any penalties against Assad for use of heavy armor and helicopter gunships in crowded urban areas.

On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the West of employing "blackmail," by threatening to block any renewal of the UN observers' mandate unless Russia backed a Chapter 7 resolution on Wednesday.

Pressure on Assad

Experts say that if such a resolution comes to the floor tomorrow, Russia will almost certainly veto it. Russia has vetoed two previous Security Council resolutions because they envisaged outside pressure on Assad to step aside.

"What do you expect? For Russia, Syria means access to the Middle East. There are 80,000 Russian-speakers living there, and the Russian Orthodox Church insists that Russia must act to protect the Christian minority in that country," says Vladimir Yevseyev, an expert with the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow.

Last year then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered Russia's UN envoys to abstain on Resolution 1973, which authorized the use of force to protect civilians in Libya but developed into a rebel drive for regime change backed by NATO airpower. Russia has vowed not to allow any similar resolution about Syria to pass the Security Council.

"Medvedev isn't president anymore, there's another person at the top in Russia now, and that's Putin," says Mr. Yevseyev. "It's senseless to try to pressure Putin; in fact it might lead to the opposite result."

Coming to a compromise?

Foreign Minister Lavrov said Tuesday that Russia might reach a compromise with the West similar to the one that was forged at a meeting of leading powers in Geneva last month. But that deal only saw the light of day after all language calling for Assad's removal or any sort of outside intervention in the conflict was removed from the draft resolution on Russia's demand.

In an otherwise anodyne statement about his "very good" meeting with Putin Tuesday, Mr. Annan hinted at the same outcome. "I would hope that the [Security] Council will continue its discussions and hopefully find language that will pull everybody together for us to move forward on this critical issue," he said.

"In effect, this tells us that all avenues for diplomacy have already been pretty much exhausted," says Sergei Strokan, a foreign policy columnist with the Moscow business daily Kommersant.

"It's all about 'red lines' now. For the West, it's any role for Assad in any future Syrian government. For Russia, the red line is any kind of outside intervention, especially based on a Chapter 7 resolution....  Everybody's talking about peace and political solutions, but in fact diplomacy is totally deadlocked," he says.

"Why should Russia be so stubborn, right up to the bitter end? You have to understand that for Moscow this isn't just about Syria. It's about the mechanism for solving such situations. Putin wants to prevent any precedent that might authorize the use of outside force to engineer change in a crumbling authoritarian regime, wherever it may be," Mr. Strokan adds.

"Maybe next time it might be Belarus or, who knows, one day even Russia?"

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