Moscow would agree to host talks between the Syrian authorities and opposition forces in a bid to end the violence the United Nations says has so far claimed the lives of over 5,000 people, Russia’s foreign minister said on Wednesday.
“As concerns the venue [for talks], we would welcome any choice agreeable to all sides,” Sergei Lavrov said. “If the opposition does not want to go to Damascus, this could be Cairo – the headquarters of the Arab League – Turkey or Russia.”
Russia has been one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s staunchest supporters during the more than ten-month uprising against his regime. Damascus has rejected international criticism of its human rights record during the conflict and says some 2,000 police and members of the security forces have been killed by “terrorists and extremists.”
“Russia and Syria enjoy old, solid ties that strengthen every year,” the new Syrian ambassador to Russia, Riyad Khaddad, told a news conference in Moscow later on Wednesday. “Syria does not take one step in the international arena without consulting with its Russian colleagues.”
He also thanked Russia for its refusal “to stay silent in the face of Western exploitation of the UN Security Council” and slammed the international media for its “lies and delusions” on Syria.
Moscow vetoed in November a UN Security Council resolution harshly condemning Syria and warned against attempts to end the crisis by the use of what it called “the Libya scenario.” Russia abstained in the March 2011 UN vote on authorizing military intervention in Libya, but sharply criticized the NATO bombing raids that helped end the four-decade-long reign of Muammar Gaddafi last fall.
Russia has also spoken out against unilateral sanctions imposed on Syria by the European Union and the United States last year. On Wednesday, Lavrov again said Moscow would stonewall attempts to gain UN approval for the sanctions. Moscow has proposed its own draft UN resolution on Syria, but Western members of the Security Council have criticized it as too weak.
But one Middle East analyst suggested that Russia's backing for Syria had ulterior motives.
“Russia’s support for Syria, it seems to me, has been agreed on with the U.S. and other leading European countries,” said Sergei Demidenko of the Moscow-based Institute of Strategic Studies and Analysis.
Demidenko suggested that Western powers have no stomach for military intervention in Syria, which he said could see the rise of Islamic extremism – dangerous for both Russia and the West - throughout the region. “Russia is playing the bad guy,” he told RIA Novosti. “The West can therefore wash its hands of Syria, saying Russia and China block us at every step.”
Russia has rejected international calls for an arms embargo against Syria, saying this would leave the authorities without a source for legal arms deliveries, while doing nothing to prevent backdoor weapons shipments to opposition forces. It has also refused to explain or justify its own arms deliveries to the violence-stricken Middle East state.
Human Rights Watch's UN advocacy director, Philippe Bolopion, criticized Russia on Tuesday for its stance.
“Russia has continued selling and delivering weapons to Syria, which is really an insult to the Syrian people who are at the receiving end of these weapons,” he said. “They should try to prevent an escalation of the crisis and instead they are really fueling the fire by sending more weapons.”
His criticism was echoed – albeit without direct mention of Russia – by Western members of the UN Security Council on Wednesday.
“It is glaringly obvious that transferring weapons into a volatile and violent situation is irresponsible and will only fuel the bloodshed,” said British UN envoy Mark Lyall Grant.
The head of the Rostekhnologii state corporation that controls official arms exporter, Rosoboronexport, Sergei Chemezov, said on Wednesday that Moscow faced losing its leading position in the Middle Eastand North African arms market if it ailed to maintain arms deliveries to Syria.