MUNICH/MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia may be seeking a "controlled demolition" of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's rule to save its sole major foothold in the Arab world against Western rivals when its foreign minister and spy chief hold rare talks in Damascus this week.
Moscow announced the high-stakes mission hours on Saturday hours before Russia and China, in a move that outraged much of the world and Syria's opposition, vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution meant to halt Assad's bloody crackdown on a popular revolt by backing an Arab League plan urging him to step down.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he would travel to Syria on Tuesday along with Foreign Intelligence Service Director Mikhail Fradkov for talks with Assad.
Lavrov revealed nothing about their purpose, but a Foreign Ministry statement on Sunday indicated he and Fradkov would at least press Assad, who has ruled out resigning and rejected his opponents as "terrorists," to make compromises.
President Dmitry Medvedev ordered the mission, it said, because Russia "firmly intends to seek the swiftest stabilization of the situation in Syria on the basis of the swiftest implementation of democratic reforms whose time has come."
After a veto that angered the West and deepened the resolve of Assad's foes, Russia faces a daunting task: how to leverage longstanding ties with an embattled Syrian leader into traction firm enough to keep Russia from losing its most solid arena of influence in the Middle East.
Moscow could be tempted to play for time by seeking to shore up Assad, whose government has billions of dollars worth of contracts for Russian arms and hosts a naval maintenance and supply facility on its Mediterranean coast that is Russia's only military base outside the former Soviet Union.
But many analysts say Moscow's veto was driven less by love for Assad or hope of a return to Syria's pre-conflict status quo than by Prime Minister Putin's desire to show - as he seeks a six-year term in a March presidential vote -, that he will defy Western efforts to impose political change on sovereign states in regions of big power competition.
"Russia's overwhelming objective is to salvage something from the wreckage of the Assad regime and contain Western influence in its most important Arab ally," said Shashank Joshi, an associate fellow at Britain's Royal United Services Institute, a military think-tank.
With Assad facing growing pressure from the West, Arab states and his opponents at home, Moscow's best hope of maintaining influence may be "a controlled demolition, of sorts - a managed transition to a new regime, shorn of Bashar but built around the loyalists of the Assad dynasty," Joshi said.
There are problems with that approach, however.
By twice vetoing U.N. resolutions that would have condemned Assad, and resisting pleas from visiting Syrian opposition groups to join calls for his resignation, Moscow may have ruined any remaining chance it had of being accepted by the opposition. A superficial shakeup would do little to change that.
But Ghassan Ibrahim, a Syrian dissident who heads the London-based Global Arab Network, a web-based news and information service, said that if Russia could secure the exit of Assad and of senior military and security officers associated with torture, Syrians would judge Russia's role as acceptable.
"The Russians think Assad's days are over and they are thinking about how to safeguard their position in the region," said Ibrahim. "Syria is their only door into the region and it gives them influence. They need to protect it. But do they have enough power to manipulate Assad (to step down)?"
The Lavrov-Fradkov trip bears echoes of past missions by Soviet and Russian officials to sort out the problems of foreign leaders under pressure or attack from the United States.
Yevgeny Primakov, who served as Russia's foreign intelligence director, foreign minister and prime minister, met Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in 1991, during Operation Desert Storm, and in 2003 - sent by Putin - before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
In 1999, Primakov traveled to Belgrade to meet Slobodan Milosevic in an effort to extract moves that would end the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia during the Kosovo conflict.
None of those missions produced major concessions by Primakov's host or deals to avert or stop the hostilities.
But Russia's diplomatic support of Assad endow it with more clout with his government than most other countries.
"The Russians are one of the few who still have a line of dialogue to the Syrians, and they take the regime seriously," said Nikolaos van Dam, a Dutch historian of Syrian politics and former senior Dutch diplomat.
"So there might be a chance that they will be listened to."
Assad "would be more prepared to stand down in dealing with a party who takes him seriously than he would be in dealing with someone who just criticizes," he said.
But Russia has said for months that has been urging Assad to implement reforms faster. And with the United States and Europe promising to push harder to remove Assad after the veto, Russia's diplomatic maneuvering may fall short. [ID:nL5E8D50AD]
"Saying 'no' is not enough," Dmitry Trenin, head of the Moscow Carnegie Center think tank, said on Sunday at a security conference in Munich, where Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State held what U.S. officials called "vigorous" talks hours before Russia and China vetoed the resolution at the United Nations.
"Mr Lavrov should have been on the way to Damascus months ago, and should have been travelling back and forth and should have been also engaging the neighbors, the Arabs, the Kurds as well as fellow members of the U.N. Security Council," he said.
Russia's veto signaled that Putin, who is likely to win a six-year term this year and could remain president until 2024, will do all he can to protect Russian geo-strategic interests and stop the United States and its European allies from imposing their will in regions of common interest.
In practice, it may have the opposite effect.
The Kremlin is determined to fight Western-baked efforts at regime change "even when it clearly contradicts Russia's own interests," Moscow-based military analyst Alexander Golts wrote in an on-line commentary. "If (Russia) supported the resolution ... it could have preserved its base and even some contracts" under a post-Assad government in Syria, he said.
"Russia has backed the wrong horse," Joshi said.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are the most likely to wield a stronger influence in a future Syria, he said.
"If Syria avoids Lebanon-style civil war, then the eventual diplomatic realignment of Damascus - away from Moscow, Beijing and Tehran, and towards the GCC and possibly westwards - will be all the more dramatic."
Russia had warned the West for months it would not allow a repeat in Syria of last year's events in Libya, where NATO military intervention following a U.N. resolution helped rebels to drive longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi from power.
Moscow had let the NATO air operation go ahead by abstaining in the U.N. vote that authorized it, but then accused the alliance of overstepping its mandate to protect civilians.
Putin, who has accused the United states of encouraging protests against his rule and funding opponents, angrily likened the Libya resolution to "medieval calls for crusades."
Editing by Mark Heinrich