Russia appears to be loosening its hard pro-Syrian stance. Military intervention is not an option for Moscow, but criticism of the Assad regime is growing in the face of international condemnation.
On Russian television over the weekend, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov seemed perplexed. In Syria, political reforms were being implemented, but at the same time fighting between government forces and armed opposition groups was continuing. The violence, Lavrov said, was "very often and without a doubt disproportionately used."
Lavrov's comments are a reason to sit up and take notice. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in a newspaper interview on Monday that Lavrov's criticism marks "the start of a political swing in Moscow" with regards to Syrian President Bashar Assad. Westerwelle's French counterpart, Alain Juppe, also said he had perceived "slight changes" in Russia's Syria policy.
Moscow moves away from Damascus
In fact, there are a number of signs that Russia could be toning down its hard support for Assad in the Syria conflict. Just recently, Lavrov publicly regretted that the government in Damascus had failed to promptly implement Russian recommendations.
His country, Lavrov said, did not support the Assad regime, but rather, the principles of justice. Those comments suggest that Moscow is moving away from Assad in the wake of the international outcry over Syria's ongoing brutality against the country's opposition.
In addition, Moscow – at least verbally – has begun to voice its support for the mediation efforts between the Syrian government and the opposition hosted by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Only a few weeks ago, Russian diplomats stayed away from a meeting of the so-called "Friends of Syria" in which representatives of more than 60 countries, including Germany and the Arab League, agreed to make Annan their special Syrian envoy.
Wrong side of history?
Western observers, until recently, interpreted Russia's hard stance as a reflection of domestic political interests, and now, only a few weeks after the country's presidential election in early March, Moscow appears to be revamping its stand on Syria.
Russia expert sees pressure mounting on Moscow
Fyodor Lukyanov, publisher of the Moscow magazine "Russia in Global Politics" has confirmed the swing, but says there was no connection to the election campaign.
"In Moscow, it was more the insight that the Assad regime has no future," says Lukyanov. Pressure on the Syrian president has been too intense and Assad has made too many mistakes, explains Lukyanov.
At the same time, however, the Western position has also changed, in particular that of the United States, in Lukyanov's view. "In the West, concern is growing about what could come after Assad and that makes it easier for Moscow to move closer to Western positions," he says.
Margarete Klein, a Russia expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin (SWP), thinks that it is now important for the "Western and Arab states to make Russia see that it would be isolating itself if it refused to alter its position." Klein is convinced that Russia will ultimately recognize "that it is on the wrong side of history," as German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle recently formulated it. Klein also thinks that "the Russian side has become aware of this danger."
Compromise at the UN
Moscow continues to shield the Assad regime, but for how long? Russia, being a veto power in the UN Security Council, will never approve military intervention against Syria, according to the foreign ministry. Twice so far, Russia and China have blocked Council resolutions condemning the Syrian regime, saying they were unbalanced for not condemning the rebels as well.
In the meantime, a third draft resolution is in the works. If new evidence of human rights violations by the Syrian army against civilians is uncovered, it will become even more difficult for Russia to justify its blockade.. Both western and Russian experts agree on this point.
A compromise in the Security Council is possible, thinks SWP's Margarete Klein. "One could agree on access to humanitarian aid for both sides," she says. Klein would also not exclude the possibility that Russia could agree to a changing of the guard in Damascus, provided that it would not look like it was forced from the outside.
Russian political expert Lukyanov also thinks it is possible that Russia and the West could reach a common position. Moscow, he says, has already achieved its goal with its hard stance: "It made clear to everyone that, without Russian consent, there can be no legitimate resolution of the Syrian conflict."
Author: Roman Goncharenko / gb
Editor: Nicole Goebel