x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Russia takes a tougher stance on Assad

Sergey Lavrov urged his Syrian counterpart to be "more decisive" in curtailing violence in the war-torn country in what amounts to increasing pressure from the Kremlin.

MOSCOW // The Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov urged his Syrian counterpart to be "more decisive" in curtailing violence in the war-torn country in what amounts to increasing pressure from Russia on the Bashar Al Assad regime.

"Frankly speaking, we gave our assessment of the situation to our Syrian colleagues," Mr Lavrov said yesterday at a joint press conference in Moscow with the visiting Syrian foreign minister Walid Mouaellem, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported. "We think that they could be taking more action and being more decisive in the way they carry out the plan's proposals."

Mr Mouallem was in Moscow to secure Russian support for Syria in the midst of a fragile UN-brokered ceasefire. According to Russian media reports, Mr Mouallem assured his counterpart that the Syrian authorities were working to implement the special envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan.

"I told my Russian colleague of the steps Syria is taking to show its goodwill for the implementation of the Annan plan," Mr Mouallem said after his meeting with Mr Lavrov. "We have already withdrawn military units from different Syrian provinces."

Mr Lavrov said Russia would send observers to the region in line with the UN request.

Russia has somewhat tempered its support for Mr Al Assad during recent weeks amid escalating violence and increasing international pressure on both sides to curb the fighting. Once a key Syria ally, Russia has begun actively urging the authorities, along with opposition forces, to work toward a stable peace.

Russian cooperation began with the March 21 unanimous passing by the UN Security Council of Mr Annan's plan. Earlier, both Russia and China had vetoed resolutions on Syria over what they perceived to be western efforts at international intervention.

Experts have said Russia's reluctance to sponsor western actions against the Al Assad regime was rooted in its opposition to forced regime change there after Nato action in Libya last year led to the downfall of the key Russia ally Muammar Qaddafi.

Yet experts also warned that Russia's current position on Syria, though edging towards a sterner line, still does not mean complete acquiescence to western demands.

According to Yevgeny Satanovsky, the president of the independent Moscow-based Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Russia's position has always been focused on the potential dangers posed by opposition forces should they prevail.

"Russia will still stay on its point together with China and other supporters of more balanced relations between opposing groups - terrorist groups, really - and the Assad regime," he said.

Representatives of the Syrian opposition are expected to visit Moscow next week, though Mr Satanovksy predicts the meeting, if it goes through, will produce little, citing the Kremlin's deep suspicion of the anti-Assad forces.