Russia accused Western powers of sabotaging a deal over Syria at the United Nations as its foreign minister headed to Damascus in a bid to nudge President Bashar al-Assad toward a political settlement.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the head of the Foreign Intelligence Service, Mikhail Fradkov, meet Assad tomorrow after Russia and China drew condemnation for vetoing a UN Security Council resolution that backed an Arab League plan to facilitate a political transition in Syria.
“We have supported and continue to support the Syrian people’s wish for a better life and justice,” Lavrov said today in Moscow. “We repeatedly have urged Damascus to accelerate the reforms it’s announced and we will continue to do so.”
Russia, which maintains its only military base outside the former Soviet Union in Syria and sells it weapons, is maneuvering to preserve some influence with its top Mideast ally as pressure builds on Assad after almost a year of escalating unrest that has killed more than 5,400 people, according to the UN.
Syria’s opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, which accused Russia and China of giving Assad a “license to kill” through their double veto on Feb. 4, must agree to hold talks with the government, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich.
Start of Dialogue
“We hope that this meeting will promote the start of a process of dialogue between the different sides in Syria,” Lukashevich said by phone today, referring to the talks with the Syrian leader. “The only way to resolve the issue is through political means.”
Lavrov said Russia had asked the U.S. and its European and Arab allies to delay a vote on the resolution until after the Damascus mission, and was rebuffed. Russia urged making changes in the text that would have called on opposition armed groups in Syria to halt attacks and endorsed the Arab League plan without backing any specific timetable for Assad’s departure.
“It was more important to attach blame for what is going on and distract attention from the activities of armed groups, which are receiving weapons, advice and other forms of help from abroad,” said Lavrov. “It was more important than reaching consensus at the UN Security Council, which was absolutely realistic.”
Russia argues that the UN-sanctioned bombing of Libya last year by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was used to bring about regime change and that the U.S. and western European governments are trying to repeat that scenario in Syria.
Clandestine help for armed opponents of Assad is already taking place, according to Jonathan Eyal, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
Without a UN mandate, Western powers will be reluctant to get involved militarily in Syria, and the Arab League won’t have the stomach to fight with one of its members, Eyal said. Qatar last month proposed sending Arab troops to Syria to halt the violence.
Russia said its aim in the talks with Assad tomorrow is to “achieve a rapid stabilization of the situation in Syria based on the swiftest implementation of democratic changes which are required now,” according to a Foreign Ministry statement.
Russia has invited Syria’s government and the opposition to hold talks in Moscow, and is ready to consider any alternative venues for negotiations, Lukashevich said.
While the Russian leadership isn’t intent on propping up the Syrian leader, it will resist any Western efforts to dislodge him, said Irina Zvyagelskaya, a Middle East analyst from the Russian Academy of Sciences.
“Assad may have to go, but it’s not right for force him out,” she said by phone. “The Syrians have to sit down at the negotiating table.”