Russia sees "elements of blackmail" in the West's linking of new sanctions against Syria with the extension of the international observer mission there, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday, and said it was unrealistic to expect Moscow to force President Assad to step down.
"To our great distress, we see elements of blackmail," Lavrov said. "They tell us, if you don't give us an agreement on accepting the [UN Security Council] resolution on Article 7 of the United Nations, then we will refuse to prolong the UN Observer Mission mandate," he added, ahead of a meeting with the UN's special envoy on Syria, Kofi Annan. The unarmed observers were sent to Syria following a UN Security Council vote in April, to observe compliance with Annan's peace plan.
Moscow thinks such an approach "is absolutely counterproductive and dangerous because to use the observers as bargaining chips is inadmissable," Lavrov said.
On Wednesday, Britain, France and Germany presented the UN Security Council with a draft resolution which coordinated an extension of the UN Observer mission in Syria with the fulfilment by the Syrian government of a series of demands within ten days, including an end to use of heavy weapons.
The draft included introduction of a series of diplomatic and economic sanctions against Damascus if it failed to carry out the resolution’s demands, in line with Article Seven of the UN Charter, which allows the Council to "determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression" and to take military and nonmilitary action to "restore international peace and security".
Russia declared that it would not accept the western draft project and presented its draft document which included an extension of the observer mission for another three months to carry out the Kofi Annan plan to resolve the conflict.
Lavrov also dismissed as “unrealistic” calls by Western powers for it to use its influence to persuade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stand down as leader of the violence-stricken Middle East country.
“They tell us that we should persuade Assad to step down of his own free will. This is simply unrealistic,” Lavrov said. “He will not leave - not because we are protecting him, but because he has the support of a very significant part of the country’s population.”
“We will accept any decision by the Syrian people on who will govern Syria, as long as it comes from the Syrians themselves,” Russia’s top diplomat added.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week that both Russia and China would “pay a price” for what she said was their support for Assad. Western powers have repeatedly accused both countries of protecting the embattled Syria leader.
Lavrov will discuss the mounting crisis in Syria with UN special envoy Kofi Annan later on Monday. Annan is also due to meet President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday during his two-day visit to the Russian capital, his second since March.
The Kremlin is continuing to push Annan’s six-point peace plan as the only way to bring an end to the spiral of violence in Syria, despite the failure of a ceasefire stipulated under the deal, which rebel forces have said they will no longer abide by. Annan’s plan does not call for Assad’s departure.
“We need to pressure both the regime and the opposition to make them stop the violence,” Lavrov said, adding that Russia had been able to persuade the Syrian armed opposition to drop what he said were “radical demands.”
“They are continuing to talk about a revolution,” he said. Lavrov held talks with two Syrian opposition groups last week.
Moscow has come under increasing international pressure over what Western powers say is its support for the authorities in Syria, the Kremlin’s sole remaining ally in the Arab world. An almost 17-month revolt against Assad has left up to 16,000 people dead, according to Syrian activists quoted by the United Nations. Government forces and pro-Assad militia have been accused by the United Nations and rights groups both in Syria and abroad of executing and torturing civilians. The International Red Cross said at the weekend that the conflict in Syria was now a “civil war,” officially obliging both sides to observe Geneva Conventions regulations on the non-targeting of civilians.
Russia – along with China - has refused to support Western-backed UN resolutions on Syria that it says betray a pro-rebel bias and which could leave the door open for foreign military intervention against the Assad regime. Putin vowed earlier this year not to allow a repeat of the “Libya scenario,” which saw the ouster and murder of long-time Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi after a NATO military campaign.
In a move interpreted as a possible shift in the Kremlin’s position, a Russian arms trade official said last week Moscow would not sign new deals on weapons deliveries to Syria until peace was established. Russia has insisted its arms supplies to Syria have been of an exclusively “defensive” nature.
Damascus saw the heaviest fighting of the entire uprising against Assad this weekend, the violence in the Syrian capital coming after the defection of Syria’s ambassador to Iraq, the most senior figure to abandon the Assad regime since the conflict began.
Lavrov also said Moscow was concerned by what he said was the increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict and the introduction of a “third force” of Islamist extremists.
“It is worrying that, according to multiple eyewitnesses, a so-called third force in the form of Al-Qaida and extremist organizations close to it has become active,” Lavrov said. “This is a tendency that has been observed in other parts of the region and threatens security.”