Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (1950- )
On Monday, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russia sees “elements of blackmail” in the West linking new sanctions against Syria with the extension of the international observer mission there, and said it was unrealistic to expect Moscow to force President Assad to step down, saying before a meeting with UN Special Envoy to Syria Kofi Annan, “To our great distress, we saw elements of blackmail. They told us, ‘If you don’t give us an agreement on accepting the [UN Security Council] resolution on Article 7 of the UN Charter, then, we’ll refuse to prolong the UN Observer Mission mandate”. The unarmed observers went to Syria following a UN Security Council vote in April, to observe compliance with the Annan peace plan. Lavrov said that Moscow thinks such an approach “is absolutely counterproductive and dangerous; to use the observers as bargaining chips is inadmissible”.
On Wednesday, Britain, France, and Germany presented the UN Security Council with a draft resolution that linked an extension of the UN Observer mission in Syria with the fulfilment by the Syrian government of a series of demands within ten days, including an end to use of heavy weapons. The draft included introduction of a series of diplomatic and economic sanctions against Damascus if it failed to carry out the resolution’s demands, in line with Article Seven of the UN Charter, which allows the Council to “determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression” and to take military and non-military action to “restore international peace and security”. Russia declared that it wouldn’t accept the western draft proposal and countered it with its proposal, which included an extension of the observer mission for another three months to carry out the Annan plan to resolve the conflict.
Lavrov also dismissed calls by Western powers for it to use its influence to persuade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stand down as leader of the violence-stricken Middle East country as “unrealistic”, saying, “They tell us that we should persuade Assad to step down of his own free will. This is simply unrealistic. He won’t leave… not because we’re protecting him, but because he has the support of a very significant part of the country’s population. We’ll accept any decision by the Syrian people on who’ll govern Syria, as long as it comes from the Syrians themselves”. Last week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that both Russia and China would “pay a price” for what she said was their support for Assad. Western powers repeatedly accused both countries of protecting the embattled Syrian leader.
Lavrov will discuss the mounting crisis in Syria with UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan later on Monday. Annan is also due to meet President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday during a two-day visit to the Russian capital, his second since March. The Kremlin is continuing to push Annan’s six-point peace plan as the only way to bring an end to the spiralling violence in Syria, despite the failure of a ceasefire stipulated under the deal, which rebel forces have said they won’t abide by. Annan’s plan doesn’t call for Assad’s departure. Lavrov said, “We need to pressure both the régime and the opposition to make them stop the violence”, adding that Russia had been able to persuade the Syrian armed opposition to drop what he called “radical demands”, saying, “They continued to talk about a revolution”. Lavrov held talks with two Syrian opposition groups last week.
Moscow has come under increasing international pressure over what Western powers say is its support for the Syrian government, the Kremlin’s sole remaining ally in the Arab world. An almost 17-month revolt against Assad has left up to 16,000 people dead, according to Syrian activists quoted by the UN. The UN and human rights groups, both in Syria and abroad, accused government forces and pro-Assad militia of executing and torturing civilians. Over the weekend, the International Red Cross said that the conflict in Syria was now a “civil war”, officially obliging both sides to observe Geneva Conventions regulations on the non-targeting of civilians.
Russia, along with China, refused to support Western-backed UN resolutions on Syria that it says betray a pro-rebel bias, which could leave the door open for foreign military intervention against the Assad régime. Earlier this year, Putin vowed not to allow a repeat of the “Libya scenario”, which saw the ouster and murder of long-time Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi after a NATO military campaign. In a move interpreted as a possible shift in the Kremlin’s position, last week, a Russian arms trade official said Moscow wouldn’t sign new deals on weapons deliveries to Syria until peace was established. Russia insisted its arms supplies to Syria have been of an exclusively “defensive” nature.
Damascus saw the heaviest fighting of the entire uprising against Assad this weekend, the violence in the Syrian capital coming after the defection of Syria’s ambassador to Iraq, the most senior figure to abandon the Assad régime since the conflict began. Lavrov also said Moscow was concerned by what he said was the increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict and the introduction of a “third force” of Islamist extremists, saying, “It’s worrying that, according to multiple eyewitnesses, a so-called third force in the form of al-Qaeda and extremist organisations close to it has become active. This is a tendency that we’ve observed in other parts of the region, it threatens security”.
16 July 2012