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Peace initiative

Andreas Gorzewski /spFebruary 22, 2013

The Syrian regime and the opposition are to meet in Moscow next week for talks to end the country’s civil war. But dialogue between the two sides is a distant prospect and Russia's clout in Syria isn't unlimited either.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is hoping to seize the initiative on SyriaImage: KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov this week urged the Syrian government led by Bashar Assad to stick to its earlier offers to sit down at the negotiating table with the opposition.

"The words have to be followed now by concrete action," Lavrov said this week after a meeting of the first session of the Russia-Arab forum in Moscow.

Lavrov said if the if the current conflict in Syria continued, it would lead to the destruction of the country. "It is time to end this two-year conflict.

"Neither side can allow itself to rely on a military solution to the conflict, because it is a road to nowhere, a road to mutual destruction of the people," he said.

Some 70,000 people have died since the uprising against Assad's regime began in March 2011.

Moscow, considered a key ally of Syria, has so far opposed moves at the United Nations to place sanctions on Syria. But Russia is redoubling efforts to broker talks between the Syrian government and opposition in an effort to halt the violence.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem as well as opposition leader Mouaz al-Khatib are expected to visit Moscow next week, albeit separately.

Arab League General Secretary Nabil Elaraby urged Russia to use its influence with the Syrian government to mediate a solution to the two-year conflict.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R), Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr (C) and Secretary-General of the Arab League Nabil Elaraby (L)
Arab League General Secretary Nabil Elaraby, left, wants Moscow to play a more proactive role in SyriaImage: Reuters

Some experts have said that along with Iran, Russia continues to wield considerable influence among Syria's government.

"The Russians have ­­quite a lot of clout in Damascus because they're continuing to supply weapons and material to the Syrian government," Dimitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a subdivision of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told DW.

Trenin added that Moscow continued to provide both political and moral support to the Syrian regime. If Damascus were to drop its willingness to sit down at the negotiating table, Russia could easily raise the pressure on Syria by cutting aid, he said.

Moscow's limited clout

Despite its significant heft in Syria, some experts, however, believe Russia is not in a position to dictate terms to Assad's regime. In the past, Moscow has prodded the Syrian government several times to open talks with opposition groups. But that has had little impact on the civil war raging in the country.

"I don't believe that Russia is a position to push the Syrian regime to take steps it doesn't want to and that could probably lead to an end to the conflict," Heiko Wimmen, an expert on Syria at the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) told DW. If Russia were to really make a serious effort to find a solution to the conflict, it would lead to a break in ties between Moscow and Damascus, Wimmen added.

Many analysts also have also said Russia simply lacks the political will to ratchet up the pressure on the Syrian regime. Russia, just like Syria, has few friends in the region and is reluctant to lose Damascus as an ally. Good ties with Assad's regime ensure that the Russian navy can use the Syrian Mediterranean port in Tartus. But at the same time, Moscow has come to realize that the situation for the Assad leadership is becoming increasing untenable.

Despite the close links between the countries, Trenin said he doesn't believe Moscow and Damascus are natural allies.

"Bashar Assad was never a Russian ally, his father was an ally of the Soviets during the Cold War," Trenin said.

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Russia has scaled back its involvement in the geopolitical pecking order in the Middle East. Moscow's position in the Syrian conflict has less to do with Russian interests on Syrian soil, Trenin said.

Rather, Moscow is more concerned in preventing a US or NATO intervention. The Kremlin has blocked UN resolutions against Syria in the Security Council in order to stave off a NATO intervention similar to the one launched over Libya, he added.

Syrian opposition remains divided

Wimmen said he does not see much hope for the talks in Russia leading to a breakthrough. He added that the Syrian government's and opposition's interests were too far apart. While the Syrian opposition wants to get rid of the current regime as soon as possible, the government is busy clinging on to power by any means. That has left no maneuvering room for dialogue, Wimmen said.

The country's current leadership would have no future in a democratic Syria, Wimmen said, adding that the government was doing all it could to avoid being made to pay for their actions.

Vehicles burn after an explosion at central Damascus
Violence is continuing across SyriaImage: Reuters

Syria's opposition groups meanwhile are mired in their own troubles, with many disagreeing whether they should open talks, even indirectly, with Syrian government representatives.

"You can't really talk with Assad and his coterie," Wimmen said. "At the most you can talk to them about how they should give up power."

The Syrian National Coalition (SNC) meanwhile has been reported to say they were only willing to talk to government representatives who have no blood on their hands.

Finding such people is an illusory idea, Wimmen said, adding that the war had dragged on for too long for that to happen. He said talks in Moscow next week will likely break down, with the warring parties jostling to pin the blame on each other.