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Russia Flexes Diplomatic Muscle on Syria

  • James Brooke

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks at a news conference in Moscow, Russia, June 9, 2012.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks at a news conference in Moscow, Russia, June 9, 2012.

MOSCOW - Amid reports that Russian Navy ships are preparing to steam to Syria, Russia intensified its diplomacy Friday on Syria.

The foreign ministers of Russia and Syria met Friday in St. Petersburg in an effort to keep Syria from falling into a full-fledged civil war.

After the two hour meeting, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister denounced as "absolutely, politically unrealistic" an American proposal that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad resign as a first step toward a political settlement.

Citing the cases of Libya and Egypt, Lavrov says that for outsiders to force Syria's President Assad to step down now would be to deliver him to a lynch mob. Instead, he says that the Syrian government now proposes the simultaneous withdrawal from towns and cities of all armed forces - from the government side and from the opposition side.

The next step would be free and fair elections, under the watch of international observers.

Earlier in the week, Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed Syria in meetings with U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron. After the meetings, Putin repeated his position on Syria: no regime change by outside forces.

He said governments should be changed by internal forces through constitutional means.

The meetings come amid growing hints that Cold War rivalries could resume in Syria, with Moscow and Washington once again arming different sides in a civil war.

All week long, Moscow has been awash with reports that three Russian Navy ships are preparing to steam from the Black Sea to Tartus, a naval station that Russia maintains on Syria's Mediterranean Coast.

Separately, near Murmansk, a Russian cargo ship is obtaining insurance coverage in order to carry its cargo of refurbished Soviet-era helicopters to Syria.

On the American side, the State Department is reportedly providing $15 million in medical and communications equipment to civilian opposition groups inside Syria. The New York Times reported that CIA officers in southern Turkey are working to ensure that weapons supplied by Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are not going to extremist groups affiliated with al-Qaida.

In the West, demonstrators complain that Russia is the Assad government's best friend, giving material and moral support to a government that has killed 10,000 of its citizens over the last year.

But in Russia, the Kremlin's muscular new foreign policy is often popular.

Samer Khazime is an international affairs student of Russian and of Lebanese origin. He says his classmates are happy to see Russia acting again on the world stage.

"You know after the fall of the USSR, Russia was weakened a lot. And now we can see on the international arena Russia is trying to kind of power up," Khazime said.

With Syria peace talks expected to start soon in Geneva, many Russians like to see Moscow once again as a power broker.

"We see that Russia in the international way it kind of getting up, and its getting more powerful and people really hear what Russia say, and they really try to make a consensus between Russia and the other side," Khazime said.

For 40 years, Moscow was the top arms supplier to the Assad family regime. Hundreds of Syrian military officers have studied here. But some analysts here caution that the Kremlin's influence in Damascus is often exaggerated.

Alexey Fenenko, research fellow, is one of them:

"I believe our American partners, they believe that Russian influence for Assad is very, very strong. I believe it is not true. Russia can have a consultation with Bashar Assad, but unfortunately, not Russia, not China -- they don't have a very big influence in Syria," Fenenko said.

But when the world talks about a Syria solution, Russia now has a seat at the table.

Next week, it will be U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's turn to come to St. Petersburg, meet with her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, and discuss a way to pull Syria back from the edge of a full-fledged civil war.
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