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MATTER OF PRINCIPLE: The Kremlin is taking on substantial risks in not changing its stance on Syria
THE international deadlock over Syria has, in a dreadful way, provided balm for old grievances in Moscow. After years of fuming about Western-led campaigns to force leaders from power, Russia has seized the opportunity to make its point heard.
This time, its protests cannot be set aside as they were when Nato began airstrikes in Libya or when Western-led coalitions undertook military assaults in Iraq and Serbia. Instead, the international community has come to Russia's doorstep.
On Friday, a top State Department official visited Moscow, presumably seeking to persuade the Kremlin to reconsider its stance and contribute to an effort to engineer a transition from the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a longtime Russian ally. In remarks after the meeting, Russia's top negotiator was implacable, telling a reporter that Moscow's position was "a matter of principle".
Russia's leaders have said repeatedly that their goal was to guard against instability, not to support Assad. They have signalled that Russia would accept a change of leadership in Syria, but only if it were devised by Syrians and not imposed from outside, an unlikely prospect in a country riven by violence.
Alongside the satisfaction of putting its foot down, Russia is incurring substantial risks. Having positioned itself as a key player in the conflict, the Kremlin is under pressure to present alternatives. Moscow faces frustration in Western capitals, where it is seen as complicit in the killing of civilians by forces loyal to Assad, and a deepening alienation among Russia's partners in the Arab world, who see Moscow as coming to the aid of dictators.
"In most Arab countries, the majority of the population, of course, supports the rebels and opposes the dictator, so our reputation has suffered badly," said Georgy Mirsky, a leading Middle East scholar at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.
"If Assad manages to win the war, if he remains in power, the majority of the population in Arab countries will blame Russia for this, of course, and our reputation will suffer. But if he is overthrown, also, many people will blame Russia anyway."
The uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia were portrayed in Russia as largely organic, driven by young people frustrated by their economic prospects. But the Syrian conflict is seen completely differently, as orchestrated by other countries in the West and the Arab world and aiding the rise of radical Islam. As the death toll has mounted in Syria -- the United Nations estimates that more than 10,000 people have been killed -- Russian officials have consistently argued that the fall of Assad's government would usher in something much worse.
"You know, when we had the war in Chechnya, what we heard was that we were using excessive force, that civilians died," Alexei K. Pushkov, the head of Russia's parliamentary committee on foreign affairs, said in a recent interview.
"But what was at stake was whether we will follow the Yugoslav scenario or not, and the Yugoslav scenario was far more bloody."
However, a recent upsurge in violence by the government's security forces, frequently aimed at women and children, has put Russia on the spot to offer alternatives.
Friday's talks between State Department envoy Fred Hof and Deputy Foreign Ministers Mikhail Bogdanov and Gennady Gatilov were an attempt to forge a consensus on a transition. One analyst recommended the model of the 1995 Dayton peace agreement, which ended a vicious ethnic war in the former Yugoslavia. Russia could serve an essential role in guaranteeing order during a political transition because it has deep connections with Syrian military officials, many of whom were educated in the Soviet Union.
After emerging from the meeting on Friday, Bogdanov said he did not foresee moving beyond the six-point ceasefire plan of the former UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, which does not call on Assad to leave power. Bogdanov put the onus for the continuing violence on opposition forces and foreign countries, which, he said, "flirt with extremists and radicals of various kinds for the purpose of achieving their own goals".
Asked what would happen if international forces intervened without a mandate from the UN Security Council, he said it would be "a disaster for the entire Middle East region". If the costs to Russia are mounting, President Vladimir Putin also has compelling domestic reasons for refusing to budge.
His predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev, lost face among hard-liners in the government for his decision not to block the Western intervention in Libya, setting into motion events that culminated in the killing of Muammar Gaddafi, another Russian ally. Agreeing to a transition plan in Syria would risk consigning Putin to a similar fate. NYT