Russia pressures Syria to withdraw troops

By: Natasha Doff

In a fresh sign of Russia’s increasingly complex strategy regarding Syria, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov put pressure on the Middle Eastern state on Tuesday to withdraw troops from around its towns and cities in accordance with a United Nations peace plan.

Under the plan, brokered by UN and Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan, Syria was to begin withdrawing its troops at 6 a.m. local time (0600 Moscow Time) Tuesday as a first step to ending the ongoing violence, which has claimed some 9,000 lives since protests broke out in March 2011.

“We demand that our Syrian colleagues rigorously implement the Annan plan,” Lavrov told reporters Tuesday after talks in Moscow with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem, Russian media sources reported.

The plan came close to collapse on Sunday when the Syrian government demanded written guarantees that rebel insurgents would stop fighting before it pulled back its troops, a demand that was rejected by the country’s main rebel group, the Free Syrian Army.

The conflict escalated on Monday when Syrian troops opened fire at refugee camp close to the Syrian border in Turkey, killing at least six people. A cameraman for the Al Jadeed television station was also reported killed in Lebanon from cross-border fire.

Muallem said in Moscow on Tuesday that the Syrian government has already withdrawn some forces from Syrian cities and that a cease-fire would begin simultaneously with the deployment of an international observer mission in the country.

“We would like to call on all opposition leaders and all countries that have influence on the political and military opposition to use that influence to bring about an immediate cease-fire as is provided by Kofi Annan’s plan,” Lavrov said in Moscow on Tuesday.

Lavrov’s strict line is symptomatic of a shift in its approach to the Syrian issue. Despite earlier disagreements with the West over how to react to the Syrian regime’s brutal repression of opposition activists, Russia has recently taken on the role of mediator between the two sides.

It has thrown its weight behind Annan’s mission, supporting two UN Security Council statements and agreed to exert pressure on the Assad regime for a cease-fire.

Earlier Russia sought to protect Assad by vetoing two UN Security Council resolutions that condemned his regime for the killings of civilians.

But experts say that, despite the shift in policy, Russia’s strategy on the Syria question has not changed. It is still, above all, acting to uphold its own interests in the region.

“Russia thinks that by adopting Annan’s plan, Assad has bought time and can remain in power,” said Alexander Rahr, Russia analyst at the German Council on Foreign Relations. “His staying in power is key for Russia, because Moscow will retain its influence in the Near East as long as there will be no regime change in Damascus. Moscow can keep its navy base and the Syrian market for itself.”

Influence in Syria is strategically important for Russia because it holds its only warm-water naval port outside the former Soviet Union in the country. Syria also buys billions of dollars’ worth of weapons from Russia, a fact that has led other nations to criticize it for its role in the Syrian conflict.

Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the Moscow Institute of the Middle East, told The Moscow News that Russia’s actions are part of a policy of staying out of foreign conflicts and preventing Western interference in Syria similar to the NATO-led operation in Libya last year.

“Russia’s position is not based on different stages of the Syrian civil war or on its conflicts with neighboring countries, it is based on allowing foreign states to settle conflicts for themselves,” Satanovsky said.

Source: The Moscow News

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