Russia accelerated the war of words over Syria today, accusing the US of undermining recent efforts to move toward a negotiated settlement between the Bashar al-Assad regime and its opponents by "encouraging extremists" at this week's Friends of Syria meeting in Rome. The US announced at the meeting that it was stepping up material aid to rebels in a bid to "change the balance of power" in the two-year civil war that's already killed more than 70,000 people.
"There is a general understanding within the international community that there is no military solution to the Syrian crisis," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in a statement posted today on the ministry’s website.
"Meanwhile, judging by incoming reports, the decisions made in Rome, as well as the statements that were made there, both in letter and in spirit, encourage extremists to seize power by force, regardless of the inevitable suffering of ordinary Syrians," he added.
Russia, the chief backer and arms supplier of the Assad regime, says the pieces are falling into place for a realistic peace process in Syria, and that it is doing all it can to pressure Mr. Assad to accept the need for sweeping change.
The Russians allege that the US is sabotaging those hopes. Mr. Lukashevich pointed to the final communique of the Rome meeting, signed by US Secretary of State John Kerry and other Western leaders, which underlined "the need to change the balance of power on the ground."
Mr. Kerry also pledged to double US nonlethal assistance directly to Syrian rebels, including food and medical supplies, although that is still far less than the weapons and ammunition the rebels are asking for.
Moscow claims it has convinced the Syrian dictator to form a negotiating team that's ready to hold talks with the rebels, with an aim to creating a transitional government that could enforce a ceasefire, rewrite the constitution, and set elections to carry Syria beyond the Assad era.
After meeting with French President François Hollande in the Kremlin yesterday, Vladimir Putin hinted to journalists that Russia and France are on the same page about the need to work together to promote "political dialogue that would involve all sides in the conflict."
Earlier this week Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held intensive discussions with Kerry and, according to Mr. Lavrov, the two agreed that "we shall do all we can to create conditions for the soonest start of a dialogue between the government and the opposition."
And today Moscow hosted leading Syrian opposition figure Manaf Tlass, a former elite army commander and childhood friend of Assad who defected to the rebels last summer.
In an interview with the Voice of Russia, Mr. Tlass said that Russia and the US should work together to create a transitional government composed of moderates from both the regime and from rebel ranks in order to save Syria from the evil twin alternatives of dictatorship or takeover by Islamist radicals.
"In Syria there is a third party that doesn't support the regime or the extremists," Tlass said.
"Most Syrians don't want to choose between these two extremes, they want to go about their lives in a stable and secure state. . . Russia has enough political clout to help find a solution," he added.
Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the State Duma's international affairs committee, argues that in encouraging the rebels to press on to military victory, the US is repeating the same mistake it made in backing anti-Soviet mujahedin fighters in Afghanistan during the 1980s.
"This [bloody civil war] came to this critical point only because somebody provided Syrian rebels with sophisticated weapons and everything they need to fight the regime, short of military intervention," Mr. Klimov says.
"It reminds me a lot the situation in Afganistan when Soviet troops supported the existing regime and the West supported and armed the other side, without taking a good look an who they were helping. I hope I don't have to remind you how that ended, or rather still hasn't ended. We're all still dealing with the consequences of those bad choices," he adds