Middle East

All eyes on Russian minister's Syria trip

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on 6 February 2012
Image caption Sergei Lavrov's visit is a chance for Russia to show it has an alternative to end Syria's spiralling violence

As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov heads to Syria for talks with President Bashar al-Assad, BBC Moscow correspondent Daniel Sandford assesses what he might hope to achieve from his visit.

Tuesday's visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the director of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service, Mikhail Fradkov, comes three days after the UN Security Council meeting in which Russia and China vetoed a resolution condemning the Syrian government's violence against its citizens.

Sergei Lavrov has not revealed the details of the message he says he is taking to Damascus from his own head of state, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

Mr Lavrov said that those who "hastily" brought the resolution to a vote in the Security Council had ignored Russia's request to wait until he had been to see President Assad.

He described comments by American and European leaders after the vote as "indecent and hysterical."

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: "What happened (on Saturday) at the United Nations was a travesty... Faced with a neutered Security Council, we have to redouble our efforts outside of the United Nations with those allies and partners who support the Syrian people's right to have a better future."

Russia has caused outrage in many Western and Arab countries by blocking attempts to use the United Nations to pressure President Assad to step aside.

If Assad's government does eventually fall, Russia will lose its last remaining ally in the region, which makes its position look rather short-term.

But James Sherr, Senior Fellow of the Russia Eurasia programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, explained that while the Russian position may seem strange to some, it is actually based on a quite simple logic.

"Russia is a country which derives a significant amount of its influence and image in the world from maintaining a very traditional strict dividing line between internal and international affairs," he said.

"This is a selling point, because Russia is able to say: "Look we are not the United States, we are not the EU. We are a reliable consistent partner". And in a world consisting still, overwhelmingly, of not terribly democratic states this is very important. And Russia can't just walk away from it."

Russia has its last remaining naval base in the Mediterranean at the Syrian port of Tartus. Russia is also Syria's main supplier of weapons.

"The base at Tartus is becoming a significant military base again," James Sherr said. "And Syria is one of the few countries in the world to have had a consistent military relationship with both the Soviet Union and Russia."

Contradictory position

Nonetheless there are signs that Sergei Lavrov and Mikhail Fradkov may use the meeting to encourage some sort of change in Syria.

As Sergei Lavrov explained to ABC Australia last week: "We're not a friend, we're not an ally of President Assad. We never said that President Assad remaining in power is the solution to the crisis."

Image caption Sergei Lavrov has made it clear Russia is "no ally" of President Assad

But he also said: "I don't think Russian policy is about asking people to step down. Regime change is not our profession. It is up to the Syrians themselves to decide how to run the country, how to introduce the reforms, what kind of reforms, without any outside interference."

That is where Western diplomats say a contradiction emerges in the Russian position. While it says that the people have a right to choose their leader, it does not allow for the international community to support a population trying to overthrow an unpopular government.

This means that, while Russia says it is trying to prevent an escalation of the conflict, some in the Syrian opposition claim that the Russian/Chinese veto is in fact driving them closer to all-out conflict.

But Sergei Lavrov said that the vetoed UN Security Council resolution had not put enough pressure on opposition groups and "armed extremists" to also withdraw their forces from areas of conflict.

"Such a resolution would have meant the Security Council was taking the side of one participant in a civil war," he said.

His meeting in Damascus is Russia's chance to show that it has an alternative to end the spiralling violence in Syria.

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