President Vladimir Putin gave little indication on Tuesday of a shift in Russia’s stance on the escalating Syria crisis, telling UN special envoy Kofi Annan only that the Kremlin continues to back his faltering peace plan.
“We will do everything in our power to support your efforts,” Putin told Annan ahead of Kremlin talks on the eve of a key United Nations vote on the violence-plagued Middle East state. “We have supported and continue to support your efforts to restore peace.”
"The Syria crisis is at a crossroads," Annan said before the start of the closed talks, which he later described as positive and an important step toward bringing peace to Syria.
Annan arrived in Moscow on Monday on a two-day visit to the Russian capital in an attempt to persuade the Kremlin to support harsher measures against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime at a UN vote on Wednesday.
Moscow is continuing to promote Annan’s six-point peace plan as the only way to bring an end to the spiral of violence in Syria, despite the failure of a ceasefire stipulated under the deal. Annan’s plan does not call for the departure of Assad - something Russia has said should be determined by “the Syrian people.”
Both Russia and China – veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council - have previously blocked UN resolutions that would have introduced tough sanctions against Syria over what Western powers say is the brutal suppression of a now 17-month revolt against Assad.
But Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after Tuesday's Kremlin talks that he saw no reason why Russia and Western powers could not come to "an agreement."
"We found a tough compromise at the conference called by Annan in Geneva," Lavrov told journalists. "I see no reason why we cannot come to an agreement on a similar basis at the Security Council."
The five permanent members of the UN Security Council - the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France – agreed on June 30 in Geneva that a transitional government should be set up in Syria. The text of the document said this could include members of the government and opposition, although Russia later objected to U.S. suggestions that the deal ruled out any role for Assad.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon flew to China on Tuesday as part of a twin diplomatic effort to convince Moscow and Beijing to agree to drop their objections to a resolution that could see foreign military intervention in Syria. Putin vowed earlier this year not to allow a repeat of the “Libya scenario,” which saw the ouster and murder of long-time Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi after a NATO military campaign.
However, in a move interpreted as a possible change in the Kremlin’s position, a Russian arms trade official said last week Moscow would not sign new deals on weapons deliveries to Syria until peace was established. Russia has insisted its arms supplies to Syria have been of an exclusively “defensive” nature.
Lavrov also reiterated on Monday the Kremlin’s insistence that it has no special interest in seeing Assad remaining in power and dubbed calls for Moscow to persuade him to stand down “unrealistic.”
And a number of Russia-based analysts have suggested the Kremlin is attempting to distance itself from the Assad regime.
“Putin has already begun to change his position on Syria, but very carefully,” said Alexander Shumilin, head of Moscow's Center for the Greater Middle East Conflicts think-tank. “On a public level, the stance remains the same. But on a diplomatic level…there is a clear attempt to move closer to the West.”
“But Putin has fallen into a trap over Syria. He tried to use the Syria card in Russia’s disagreement over the NATO anti-missile shield in Europe and on Western support for the anti-Putin opposition,” Shumilin added. “But nothing worked out for him and he is now trying to distance himself from Assad, but still keep face. Russia has become too closely linked to Assad and is now bearing responsibility for his crimes.”
Government forces and pro-Assad militia have been accused by the United Nations and rights groups both in Syria and abroad of executing and torturing civilians. The International Red Cross said at the weekend that the conflict in Syria was now a “civil war,” officially obliging both sides to observe Geneva Conventions regulations on the non-targeting of civilians.
Russia has warned repeatedly that a full-scale war in Syria would be a “catastrophe” for the region and other Moscow-based analysts believe the West had no real appetite for an attack on Damascus.
“In the past, if the West has wanted to bomb countries, it has done, without waiting for permission from the United Nations,” said analyst Sergei Demidenko of the Moscow-based Institute of Strategic Studies and Analysis think-tank. “Look at Iraq, look at Afghanistan.”
“But the West realizes the problems that would arise after an attack on Syria. So Russia’s stance is very convenient for it, in this respect,” he added.
And Demidenko also said Western powers were taking Israel’s Syria policy of “the better the devil you know” into account.
“Israel says, “yes, Assad is bad. But what will replace him will be even worse,” he said.
As Putin and Annan met in Moscow, fighting continued to rage for a third straight day in the Syrian capital of Damascus. The hostilities are the heaviest in the capital since the start of the revolt.
The United Nations, quoting Syrian rights activists, says some 16,000 people have died in Syria since the start of the revolt.