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Russia Woos Syria Opposition, Annan Pushes for Power Sharing

Map of SyriaRussia is reaching out to the Syrian opposition to keep its influence in the Middle East country after the potential exit of President Bashar al-Assad, an ally it has shielded from international censure.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met today with Abdulbaset Seida, the Syrian National Council's new chief, after talks with Michel Kilo, another opposition leader, on July 9. Russia isn't "clinging" to Assad and Syria should be left to decide his fate, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said yesterday on the ministry's website. Russia and China have blocked United Nations sanctions over Assad's crackdown on a 17-month uprising in Syria. While Russia won't publicly abandon support for Assad, it's trying to pressure the opposition to agree to share power with elements of the current government, said Alexei Malashenko, a Middle East analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

"Russia understands that Assad's days are numbered because of the civil war and his steady loss of support," Malashenko said by phone. "Its main concern is to keep what it can of its influence and preserve face."

The Syrian National Council demands that Assad steps down before it holds any transition talks, Seida was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies after his meeting with Lavrov. Russia has proposed an alternative plan that the opposition will consider, Seida said, according to Interfax.

Russian Draft

In New York, Russia yesterday circulated a draft UN Security Council resolution seeking to extend the mandate of an observer mission in Syria for three more months, according to a copy obtained by Bloomberg News. While the resolution says the Security Council will take into account recommendations to reduce the mission's size, it insists on the need to keep a "military observer capability" to conduct fact-checking tasks.

The draft may fail to win backing from the U.S., France and the U.K., which have insisted on a resolution that empowers the council to impose sanctions or authorize military means to enforce its will.

In a 25-page report, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon advised a reduction in the number of 300 monitors in Syria, and having the smaller mission based in Damascus, to encourage a political dialogue. The three-month mission expires July 20.

Annan's Talks

UN envoy Kofi Annan held talks in Tehran yesterday to enlist the help of Iran, another key Assad ally. World powers endorsed a new proposal by Annan on June 30 to establish a transitional government that may include representatives of the opposition and Assad's administration.

Russia, which has accused the U.S. and its allies of seeking a forced ouster of Assad similar to the overthrow of Libya's Muammar Qaddafi last year, has vowed to prevent the repeat of such a scenario.

Eleven military ships were dispatched by Russia from its Northern, Baltic and Black Sea fleets to hold naval exercises in the Mediterranean and Black Sea, the Defense Ministry said yesterday. Some of the vessels will dock at a Russian naval resupply base in the Syrian port of Tartus, Interfax reported, citing an unidentified official.

While Russia refused to halt existing weapons sales, the country won't sign any new arms contracts with Syria until the situation stabilizes, Vyacheslav Dzirkaln, the deputy head of the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, said July 9, the RIA Novosti news service reported.

17,000 Lives

The violence in Syria has claimed more than 17,000 lives, according to Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The casualties include 4,348 members of Assad's security forces, he said.

Russia will discuss the implementation of a stalled peace plan brokered by Annan this year at the talks with Seida, the opposition leader, Bogdanov said. Bassma Kodmani, a member of the Syrian National Council, said yesterday that Assad's opponents want the UN to mediate talks with Syria's government once violence in the country ends.

"We think it's going to be difficult to have a bilateral process," she told reporters in Moscow. "We think there's a need for a third party to be the facilitator, the mediator. Ideally, we think the UN is a legitimate and normal partner."

An immediate cease-fire and a troop pullout from urban centers must precede any talks, Kodmani said. She said the opposition wants Russia to play a "positive role" in a handover of power in Syria, where the Assad family has ruled for four decades.

Assad's Proposal

At talks in Damascus on July 9, Assad suggested a solution to end the crisis that involves trying to contain the violence in districts where clashes are particularly extreme and "step- by-step, build up and end the violence across the country," Annan said yesterday.

Efforts to reach a solution may fail because of the intransigence of Assad and his armed opponents as well as divisions within the political opposition, said Jamie Ingram, a London-based Middle East analyst at IHS Global Insight.

"There are definitely signs that the opposition is coming under significant pressure to back Annan's efforts," Ingram said by e-mail yesterday. "But the likelihood of the Assad regime sticking to the plan remains virtually non-existent and the divisions within the SNC and the wider opposition movement are likely to prevent any potential negotiations from succeeding."

©2012 BLOOMBERG L.P. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED; article also appeared at www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-07-10/russia-courts-syria-opposition-as-annan-pushes-for-power-sharing.html

Keywords: Russia, Middle East, Syria - Russian News - Russia

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