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Is Russia part of the problem or the solution in Syria?

January 23, 2014 at 6:03 pm

Throughout the Syrian conflict, Russia has stood firmly by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Along with Iran, the country has defended its ally against calls by western powers for ever greater sanctions. The schism between Russia and other countries in the Security Council has consigned the UN to near irrelevance in the Syrian conflict, which has so far claimed around 70,000 lives.

However, this does not mean that all hope for a diplomatic solution has been abandoned. This week, a meeting was held in Moscow between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and top Arab officials, including Nabil el-Arabi, the Secretary General of the Arab League, and several foreign ministers from the region. Following the meeting, Lavrov said that violence was a “road to nowhere”, and called for direct talks between the regime and the rebels. Russia and the Arab League have offered to broker these talks, stating their priority to be the establishment of a transitional government to see the country out of the crisis.

Will this new approach from Russia make any difference? There are several issues at stake here. Firstly, it is increasingly obvious that no diplomatic solution can be brokered without efforts by Assad’s allies, Russia and Iran. There is obviously some recognition of this from certain factions among the rebels. Moaz al-Khatib, the president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (commonly known as the Syrian National Coalition) held talks this month with the Russian and Iranian foreign ministers in Munich. He is due to travel to Moscow for further talks with Lavrov in early March.

However, the rebels are nothing if not splintered. Following Lavrov’s announcement, Abdelbaset Sieda, a senior member of the Syrian National Council, told the BBC: “We cannot agree to that. Assad and his group must go first. After that we can discuss with others in the regime who didn’t share in the killing of our people.” A meeting in Cairo, beginning on Thursday, is likely to strengthen this position. For its part, the Syrian government has proposed a “national dialogue” for a solution, but insists that it must preside over it.

While Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov has expressed “cautious optimism” about talks going ahead, it appears that neither the regime nor the opposition has given up the belief that they can win the war through military means. Diplomats suggest that due to this, neither side is particularly interested in a compromise solution.

In his call for both sides in the conflict to find representatives for talks, Lavrov said: “It’s important now that the Syrian opposition’s willingness for dialogue is met by the government’s confirmation that it is ready for dialogue. Words must be accompanied by action.”

But is Russia doing as it preaches and matching its words with action? Despite Lavrov’s condemnation of continued military action and violence as a “road to mutual destruction of the people”, Russia recently confirmed that it is continuing to arm the Syrian regime. Meanwhile, Britain has said it is open to arming select groups of rebels, and the US, while reluctant to take such a course of action at the moment, has not ruled it out in the future. This week, the Kremlin sent four large warships to waters near Syria. Igor Korotchenko, editor in chief of the National Defense monthly journal, said that this demonstrates that “Russia stands by its attitude that the Syrian crisis should be resolved within the country by the country’s existing political forces.”

That attitude is all well and good, but it is meaningless to call for talks while continuing to provide arms for the conflict you condemn. On both sides of the conflict, international powers should consider the high stakes of continuing to facilitate the bloodshed.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.