Russia takes center stage Saturday when the U.S. and other major powers gather in Geneva to try to map out a strategy to end the bloodshed in Syria, where activists say 14,000 people have died since the uprising against President Bashar Assad began in March last year.
The Americans have the diplomatic clout to arrange such a conference, bringing together the five veto-wielding U.N. Security Council members – Britain, China, France, Russia and the U.S. – as well as Turkey and representatives of the Arab League, Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar.
But only the Russians have the influence with Assad to give this latest diplomatic initiative any chance of success.
WHY IS RUSSIA SO IMPORTANT?
Russia is Syria’s most important ally and protector and its main supplier of arms. At the U.N. Security Council, the Russians have blocked the world body from taking strong, punitive action against the Assad regime, including global economic sanctions or military action. The Russians have also consistently opposed any international plan that would demand Assad’s removal from power, although they have said they would not stand in the way of such a formula if all Syrian parties agreed.
WHY IS RUSSIA SO TIED TO ASSAD?
Russia maintained close ties to Assad’s father, Hafez, who ruled Syria with an iron fist from 1971 until his death in June 2000. With all the political changes brought on by the Arab Spring revolutions, Syria is now Russia’s last remaining ally in the Middle East. In the last four decades, Russia has sold Syria billions of dollars worth of weapons, and the loss of its Syrian ally could cost Moscow other lucrative trade deals. A change in power in Damascus could also reduce Russian political influence in Arab world, where it is a broker in Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. The Russians also strongly oppose a world order dominated by the United States and want no repeat of last year’s NATO air campaign that led to the ouster of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, a former Moscow ally.
HAS RUSSIA’S POSITION ON SYRIA SHIFTED?
As the Syria conflict grows bloodier, Russia has shifted away from public support for Assad himself, instead focusing on well-founded concerns that foreign military intervention could lead to even more bloodshed. Russia accuses the West of ignoring the darker side of the Syrian opposition, including Islamic extremist elements and the summary execution of captured Syrian soldiers. Moscow also notes Assad still commands the loyalty of many Syrians, including Christians, his own Alawite sect and secular Sunni Muslims, who fear the rise of Islamic extremism if the regime collapses.
WHAT WILL BE RUSSIA’S STRATEGY AT THE CONFERENCE?
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov insists the Geneva talks should concentrate on persuading Syrian opposition groups to soften their demands. He also denies claims by the U.S. that Moscow backs a plan for a transition government to oversee the drafting of a new Syrian constitution and eventual election. The Russians will likely play for time, blocking any explicit call for Assad to step down while endorsing talks among all Syrian parties, something the opposition has previously rejected. This would let the Russians say they are actively seeking a solution to the crisis without jettisoning their longtime ally.
Associated Press correspondents Elizabeth Kennedy in Beirut, Vladimir Isachenko in Moscow and John Heilprin in Geneva contributed to this report.