UN-Arab League peace envoy Kofi Annan sought yesterday to shore up vital backing from Russia for a plan to end a year of bloodshed that hinges on the Kremlin being willing to exert sustained pressure on its Arab ally.
Annan was yesterday scheduled to meet Russian President Dmitry Medvedev just days after Russia capped a wave of rare criticism of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, by finally backing a UN Security Council call for his forces to pull out of protest cities.
Al-Assad has so far shown -little sign of complying. Tanks and troops were reported on Saturday to be once again shelling rebel hubs such as Homs and storming a deserter stronghold. At least 28 civilians were reported killed.
Rebel fighters responded to the violence on Saturday by setting up a military council to unify their ranks.
Moscow backed a non--binding Security Council statement on Wednesday after vetoing two previous resolutions, but only after making sure it contained no implicit threat of further action should al-Assad fail to comply.
The Kremlin also underscored its continued divide with the West by voting against a UN Human Rights Council resolution condemning “appalling human rights violations in Syria” because it made no demands on the armed opposition.
Washington’s UN ambassador Susan Rice conceded that Russia had made only “a modest step” toward ending a campaign the opposition says has claimed more than 9,100 lives.
Russia has watched with alarm as a year of Arab revolts has swept aside veteran leaders with -longstanding ties to Moscow.
The re-election of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to a third term as president amid a wave of what the Kremlin has branded US-funded protests in Moscow has added further bitterness to the tone of the diplomatic debate on Syria.
Medvedev’s office said ahead of Annan’s arrival that halting the bloodshed was impossible “without ending the foreign supply of arms to the opposition and its political support.”
However, Russian officials appear to be preparing for al-Assad’s eventual departure even while refusing to accept his loss of full legitimacy — a stance taken by most Western powers since last year.
“[Al-]Assad’s position is difficult,” an unnamed Kremlin official told Interfax on Friday.
“I do not know whether he has prospects or not, but no one is predicting another 10 years in power for him,” the source said.
Moscow has done less in recent weeks to hide that it is starting to lose patience with al-Assad, despite his commitment to massive new Russian arms purchases and delivery of key naval access to the Mediterranean Sea.
A top Kremlin-linked lawmaker said this week that al-Assad should treat the UN statement as “an insistent recommendation” the implementation of which would determine the future course of relations between the two countries.
“Russia’s future position on the conflict will depend on how successfully [al-Assad] complies with the provisions spelled out in the Security Council statement,” senior United Russia party member Mikhail Margelov said.
The clear shift in tone, but persistent refusal to join international calls for al-Assad to go means that “Russia is not wedded to this regime,” Kommersant foreign affairs correspondent Maxim Yusin said.
“Russia’s main goal is to make sure that al-Assad’s opponents do not grab all the power — that would see Russia lose everything it has in Syria,” Yusin said. “Annan’s visit should tell us what Russia is willing to do should [al-]Assad not listen on this occasion.”