Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said Western attempts to get Moscow to discuss sanctions against Syria contain “elements of blackmail”. Mr Lavrov said the West had threatened to end a UN observer mission if Russia opposed its draft resolution. Peace envoy Kofi Annan arrived in Moscow Monday and was expected to urge Russia to put more pressure on Syria’s leaders to begin a political transition.
Russia has strong ties with Syria and has vetoed foreign intervention calls. It has circulated its own draft resolution calling for the extension of the observer mission’s mandate, which runs out on Friday. It does not contain any threat of sanctions against Damascus. Mr Annan’s visit comes amid reports of some of the heaviest fighting in the conflict so far around Damascus.
There have been mixed signals from Moscow in recent weeks, with some suggestions that Russia’s support for the Syrian government may be waning. Today (Monday) though, Sergei Lavrov dispelled the rumours. Just a few minutes into his press conference, it became obvious that Moscow’s position hadn’t changed an inch. Russia refuses to lay the principal blame for the violence on President Assad; it is up to both sides in the conflict to stop fighting and start negotiating.
The Russians are clearly fed up of Western criticism that Moscow could – but won’t – push President Assad from power. The message from Mr Lavrov: it’s “unrealistic” to expect Russia to do that, because there are still many Syrians who support President Assad.
And when Russia’s foreign minister accused the West of trying to “blackmail” Russia into supporting a tougher UN Security Council Resolution, he revealed the chasm between East and West over Syria. Judging from Mr Lavrov’s words, Kofi Annan will struggle to persuade Moscow to adopt a tougher tone with Damascus.
Activists and residents reported that tanks and mortars were used on the southern edge of the city, in areas like Tadhamon and Midan and around nearby Palestinian refugee camps. A convoy of army reinforcements was reported to have been attacked by rebels in Kfar Sousa to the west, leading to further clashes there.
Residents were said to be fleeing some areas, while in other parts of the city protesters blocked motorways with burning tyres. Mr Lavrov said the West had told Russia to back a draft resolution on sanctions or it would “refuse to extend the mandate of the observer mission”.
It was “not right” to say that pressure should only be brought on the government of President Bashar al-Assad and not the opposition to end the conflict, he added. “We do not support Assad,” he said. “We support what has been agreed by all sides.” But he said it was unrealistic to expect Russia to persuade Mr Assad to step down. “He will not leave power. And this is not because we are protecting him but because there is a very significant part of the Syrian population behind him,” he said.
Mr Annan is expected to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and Mr Lavrov during two days of talks. He is expected to ask Mr Lavrov to put pressure on the Syrian authorities to begin a political transition. He knows Russia’s role is crucial for the success of his peace initiative, but there is little sign that the Kremlin is ready to do what he says.