MOSCOW – A meeting scheduled for Tuesday between top Russian officials and Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad is being portrayed by the Russian government as an attempt to bring about “the swiftest stabilization of the situation in Syria” in response to the growing conflict.
The move is an effort to seize the initiative on Syria from the Western powers – and from the United States, in particular – and to prevent an international intervention.
Before he left for Damascus, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton traded barbs over a tough United Nations resolution on Syria, proposed by the Arab League, that Russia and China vetoed Saturday.
“Certain Western states are trying to obscure the developments with hysterical statements on Russia’s veto of the Syria resolution,” Lavrov said Monday. “To put the Syria resolution to a vote despite our request to wait for Russia’s report after its visit to Damascus is disrespectful.”
Clinton denounced the vetoes as a “travesty.”
“Those countries that refuse to support the Arab League plan bear full responsibly for protecting the brutal regime in Damascus,” Clinton said Sunday at a news conference in Sofia, Bulgaria.
And in an apparent swipe at Russian arms shipments to Syria, Clinton said, “We will work to expose those who are still funding the regime and sending it weapons that are used against defenseless Syrians, including women and children.”
Lavrov will be accompanied by the head of Russian foreign intelligence, Mikhail Fradkov.
Russia maintains that it is not siding with Assad but trying to prevent a foreign intervention that it fears would be bloody and sow chaos in one of the few Middle Eastern countries with which Russia has good relations. Moscow worries about a repeat of what happened in Libya, where it believes Western forces took advantage of a U.N. resolution to conduct a far wider action than promised.
At the same time, a foreign ministry statement said Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered the mission to Damascus because Russia “firmly intends to seek the swiftest stabilization of the situation in Syria on the basis of the swiftest implementation of democratic reforms whose time has come.”
Syria is an important customer for Russian arms sales and hosts a naval supply base, but analysts agree that alarm in Moscow over popular uprisings is the main driver of Russian policy. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is running for president, sees Western interference behind nearly every mass protest — including in his own country.
But several experts argue that Syria presents another wrinkle: A long-held Russian antipathy toward Saudi Arabia is once again coming to the fore, as Moscow believes the Saudis seek to bolster their Sunni counterparts in Syria.
“The Russian establishment and public opinion don’t buy the picture of a peaceful pro-democracy movement suppressed by dictatorship,” wrote Fyodor Lukyanov, a leading foreign policy expert, for the Russia Today Web site. “Well-trained and heavily-armed rebel groups have support from the outside, primarily from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.”
Russia, he said, understands that Assad, a member of the Alawite minority, can’t rule indefinitely but wants to manage his exit in a way that preserves the status quo as much as possible — and not hand a victory to the Saudis.
Russia blames Saudi missionaries for spreading a puritanical and, Russians believe, extremist form of Islam among Russian Muslims after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Radical Islam is a huge concern among the Russian leadership, especially in the North Caucasus and along the Volga River, two traditionally Muslim regions that in the past subscribed to a tolerant practice of the religion. Russia has fought two wars in Chechnya against Muslim separatists.
Russians believe that the Saudis have “duped” Americans into supporting Islamist-influenced uprisings, Mark Katz, a Russia and Middle East expert at George Mason University, said in a recent interview.
Russian anger at the United States is further rooted in the belief that once the Americans pull out of Afghanistan, Russia will be at far greater risk from an upheaval there than the United States, because of its proximity.
This is not the first last-ditch effort by Moscow to head off Western intervention. In 1990, Yevgeny Primakov met with then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in an effort to forestall Operation Desert Storm. In 1999, Primakov went to Belgrade to meet with Slobodan Milosevic on the same errand, as NATO was preparing the air war over Kosovo. Neither effort succeeded. This time, writes Dmitry Trenin of the Moscow Carnegie Center, in Foreign Affairs, Russia might have gotten results — if it hadn’t waited so long to get interested in Syria’s problems.
Georgy Mirsky, a senior researcher at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, told the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta that Russia’s blocking of the U.N. resolution is unlikely to deter Saudi Arabia. “Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey will not be standing aside: they will send military instructors, advisers and arms to Syria without any UN Security Council resolutions,” he was quoted as saying. “The Muslim Brotherhood movement may come to power in Syria instead of Assad.
“All this may result in a bloody massacre of the Alawites and a confrontation between the Sunnis and Shiites in the Middle East,” he said.
Alexander Golts, a leading independent military analyst in Moscow, sees an ending along these lines: “Assad will fall. Russia will lose its authority in Syria. And Mr. Putin will speak about bloody Western conspiracy.”