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Annan Finds Mild Response in Russia on Syria

  • James Brooke

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, with UN special envoy Kofi Annan in Moscow, July 17, 2012

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, with UN special envoy Kofi Annan in Moscow, July 17, 2012

MOSCOW — As fighting between rebels and government forces raged in the Syrian capital, U.N. envoy Kofi Annan held talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Syria's crisis. The response from Syria-ally Russia was largely muted.

But Putin vowed to support the peace effort in Syria. “We will do everything that depends on us to support your efforts,” the Russian leader said.

Annan was in Moscow to line up support in advance of a vote Wednesday at the United Nations on extending the U.N. monitoring mission in Syria.

The mandate expires on Friday. And with street fighting taking place in Damascus, the future of the 300 cease-fire monitors may be in doubt.

After meeting with Putin, Annan said he hopes common ground can be found.

"Obviously, the discussions in the Security Council regarding the resolution also came up. And I would hope that the Council will continue its discussions and hopefully find language that will pull everybody together," Annan said.

Russia supports a simple three-month extension of the observers' mandate. Western powers want language that could open the door to military action by outsiders.

In Russia, that topic is taboo.

Fyodor Lyukanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs magazine, says the Putin government will not budge.

“There is a red line which Russia will never cross. I will say never. This is legitimization of any kind of outside intervention, military intervention in Syria,” Lyukanov said.

For the 16 months of Syria’s uprising, Russia has stood out as the closest ally of the increasingly isolated nation.

But as Moscow digested news of heavy fighting in Damascus, Russian officials took a low profile.

Russia 24, the state-run all news channel, showed no photo of Putin meeting with Annan. Instead, the channel aired lengthy reports on the Russian president coordinating relief to victims of the last week’s flooding in southern Russia.

Separately, a Russian ship carrying refurbished helicopters for Syria took an inexplicable detour to St. Petersburg, adding extra days to its route to the Mediterranean.

Also silent was Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who on Monday gave a lengthy press conference on Syria.

He told reporters that Russia’s influence in Syria is overestimated. He said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is not leaving power because he retains substantial popular support.

The Russian foreign minister stressed that Russia was acting on principle - the non-intervention in the internal affairs of other countries.

Lyukanov, the analyst agrees, saying that arm sales and Russia’s naval base at Tartus, Syria are minor issues.

“How this conflict will be settled will serve as a model for future dealing with internal crisis situations in many countries. And that’s what Russia now considers to be important. It’s not about arms sales. It’s not about Tartus base. It’s not about anything else. It’s not about Assad,” Lyukanov said.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon headed Tuesday to China for talks with President Hu Jintao. China has joined Russia in vetoing Security Council resolutions calling for tough action against Syria.

The official People's Daily newspaper ran a commentary Tuesday rejecting foreign intervention in the Syrian crisis.

On Wednesday, the visitor to Moscow will be Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Although Turkey is coping with tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, analysts here do not predict that he will be able to shift Russia’s hands-off policy.

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