x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Russia warms to Syrian ceasefire plan, says Red Cross

It would be the clearest sign yet that the government of President Vladimir Putin is prepared to work in concert with other major powers to address the human costs of the year-long uprising.

MOSCOW // Russia has given "positive indications" on proposals for a daily two-hour halt in fighting in Syria, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said yesterday after its president held talks in Moscow with Russian officials.

Hicham Hassan, a spokesman for the ICRC, said the independent humanitarian agency hoped to see "concrete results" on the ground in Syria in coming days after its chief, Jakob Kellenberger, and the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, met for 90 minutes in the Russian capital.

"During the meeting the ICRC received positive indications of support on its operational priorities and its initiative of a two-hour cessation of fighting on a daily basis," Mr Hassan said at the organisation's headquarters in Geneva.

If Moscow approves the plan, it would be the clearest sign yet that the government of President Vladimir Putin is prepared to work in concert with other major powers to address the human costs of the year-long uprising, if not try to help end it.

The thaw follows a presidential campaign in which Mr Putin stood on a ticket advocating Russian strength abroad and opposition to foreign interference at home.

By persisting in its support for the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, in defiance of western pressure, Moscow succeeded in proving it was still a force to be reckoned with on the world stage, even as its influence in the Arab world continues to ebb following the end of the Cold War, analysts said.

In remarks last week to the United Nations Security Council in New York, Mr Lavrov appeared to be declaring diplomatic victory in Russia's months-long opposition to any UN resolution that it deemed an infringement on Syria's domestic affairs.

"The temptation to put artificial blame on us for what is going on in Syria is now abating. There is now more understanding that it is necessary to act jointly and influence and exert pressure on those who are fighting in Syria," the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti quoted him as saying.

The Russian foreign minister said the Kremlin would now endorse a UN resolution based upon principles agreed with the Arab League, including an end to violence, supplying humanitarian aid and non-interference in Syria's internal affairs.

The last condition - external meddling in domestic affairs - has been the driving force for Russia throughout the diplomatic row over Syria.

Moscow is still reeling from memories of the violent fall of its ally, Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, and is nervous over a growing opposition movement at home, said Konstanin von Eggert, a commentator on international affairs for Kommersant FM radio in Moscow.

"The point that was being made was nothing short of Russian domestic politics, and the Kremlin's obsession with the so-called 'Orange Revolution' and regime change, and I think that now that the point has been made, there seems to be a certain flexibility appearing in the Russian position," Mr von Eggert said.

Mr Putin and other top Russian officials are also pragmatic, he added: "Russian leaders realise that Assad won't last long, and I don't think backing the loser until the very end is the Russian position."

Moscow's support for Mr Al Assad - in particular, its arms deals with a regime that is carrying out what its critics describe as a "scorched earth" policy towards its opposition - has been controversial.

Russia accounts for 72 per cent of arms transfers to the Assad regime, which has imported nearly six times as many weapons between 2007 and 2011 than in the previous five-year period, said a report issued by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri).

Mr Lavrov insisted last week that Russia's business deals with Syria did not mean wholehearted support for the Assad government.

Russian actions are aimed at "defending not the regime, but justice," he told Russian politicians. "Our goal is the achievement of peace in Syria, the preservation of human lives, not allowing an inter-religious explosion in the Middle East," he said.

While regularly taking the podium at the UN and elsewhere to stoutly defend the principle of non-interference, however, the Kremlin is also practical.

Moscow's posture towards Damascus is "much more fluid" than it might appear, said the Russian foreign policy expert, Pavel Baev.

When looking at which side deserves more support, Russia picks whoever is on top, Mr Baev said. For now, "there is no point" in helping the opposition "because they're the forces of chaos, and in the Russian perception, revolution and chaos are pretty much synonymous".

Sergei Markov, a political analyst and a special representative for the president-elect, Vladimir Putin, during the recent presidential campaign, said that while Moscow will remain firmly against intervention, it will not follow the Assad regime to its grave.

"If Russia sees that the majority of Syrians deny the regime, it will diminish its support for Bashar Al Assad for sure, because Russia wants to be with the majority," he said.

A post-Assad Syria coming on the heels of a post-Qaddafi Libya will likely serve to underscore the waning of Russian influence in the Middle East. Moscow has succeeded in making a point, however, said Fyodor Lukyankov, editor-in-chief of the journal, Russia in Global Affairs.

"Internationally, I think that Russia played this game quite well, because they demonstrated a very firm position and the others understood that they can't just do anything they want to Syria," he said.

"It [foreign intervention in Syria] will never be legitimised without Russia."