x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Struggle to get Russia on-board for Syria plan

The Arab League secretary-general, Nabil El Araby, will try to convince Russia today to endorse a league plan to peacefully resolve the Syrian crisis.

Syrian soldiers, who defected to join the Free Syrian Army, mingle with demonstrators during a protest against the regime in Idlib, Syria.
Syrian soldiers, who defected to join the Free Syrian Army, mingle with demonstrators during a protest against the regime in Idlib, Syria.

UNITED NATIONS // The Arab League secretary-general, Nabil El Araby, will try to convince Russia today to endorse a league plan to peacefully resolve the Syrian crisis.

The plan calls for President Bashar Al Assad to temporarily step aside to allow a deputy to run the country in a national unity government until general elections can be held.

Russia, which holds a Security Council veto, has already dismissed a draft of the plan, which gives Damascus 15 days to agree to it or face further council "measures".

Russian officials have said that the plan's language implies the eventual possibility of military intervention. Russia instead has invited the Syrian government and opposition to informal talks in Moscow, an invitation so far rejected by Mr Al Assad's opponents.

"If the [Syrian] opposition refuses to sit at the negotiating table with the regime, what is the alternative - to bomb? We've been through that before," the Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said in Australia on Tuesday, according to the Russian Itar-Tass news agency.

"The Security Council will never approve that, I guarantee you," Mr Lavrov was quoted as saying.

"The western draft Security Council resolution on Syria will not lead to a search for compromise," added Russia's deputy foreign minister, Gennady Gatilov, according to Interfax news service.

"Pushing it is a path to civil war."

The UN has said more than 5,400 Syrians have died during 11 months of protests. The government said more than 2,000 security personnel have also been killed.

Moscow also said the Arab League plan promotes regime change, a stinging charge against the West following Russia's support last spring for Security Council action against the Libyan leader, Muammar Qaddafi, who was eventually overthrown and killed by rebels in October.

Mr Lavrov has called the resolution's stipulation that Mr Al Assad step down "absolutely unforgivable" and "a rather irresponsible statement, because it attempts to undermine the chance to calm the situation".

Western diplomats have grown exasperated with Russian intransigence on Syria.

Some see it as a last grasp at the embers of Soviet-era influence in the Middle East.

"Russia does not want to lose its last ally in the region," one diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said. "Syria is like the last and hidden member of the Warsaw Pact."

Russian officials at the UN decline to discuss in detail Russia's interests in Syria.

But Moscow's fierce opposition to a proposed arms embargo against Syria is telling. In 2010, Russia sold Syria US$700 million (Dh2.5bn) in weapons, about seven per cent of all Russian foreign arms sales, according to the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow-based defence think tank.

Russian warships also dock at the Syrian Mediterranean port of Tartus.

"It is legendary that Russia has sought a warm water port since the days of Peter the Great," a diplomat said.

One question facing diplomats is whether Russia might be willing to cut off Mr Al Assad if it could maintain its arms contracts and other arrangements with a successor government.

While the US has taken a back seat to the Arab League and the European Union in drafting the resolution it has stepped up its rhetoric against Russia on he issue.

"We have seen the consequences of neglect and inaction by this council over the course of the last 10 months, not because the majority of the council isn't eager to act - it has been - but there have been a couple of very powerful members who have not been willing to see that action take place. That may yet still be the case," said Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN.

Ms Rice was referring to a double veto by Russia and China on a Security Council resolution in October that would have condemned Syrian state violence against protesters.

Diplomats have said China was only playing a supporting role to Russia on Syria.

"We think that what is contained in this resolution is quite straight forward," said Ms Rice.

"There are no sanctions, there is no use of force or the threat of use of force as some have alleged, it is primarily a straightforward condemnation of what has transpired and a call upon the government of Syria to adhere to the commitments it made to the Arab League."

She said an endorsement of the Arab League plan "is vitally important and the minimum that the council should do".

foreign.desk@thenational.ae