* Russia hedges its bets on Syrian leader Assad’s fate
* Moscow hopes to hold influence in diplomacy and Syrian transition
* For Putin, ensuring Russia’s voice is heard and curbing Western clout are crucial
By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW, March 21 (Reuters) - One part public relations, one part cold calculation: Russia’s sharper tone toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is calculated to improve Moscow’s image after months shielding him from censure and ensure the Kremlin a strong diplomatic role regardless of whether he stays in power.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took aim at Assad in an interview broadcast on Tuesday, saying Syria’s leadership had ignored Russia’s warnings and made “very many mistakes” that helped drag the country to the brink of civil war.
The tough tone is part of a growing Russian effort to distance itself from Assad, whose government is blamed by many Western and Arab countries for violence the United Nations says has killed more than 8,000 civilians since a crackdown on pro-democracy protests began in March 2011.
On Wednesday, Russia supported a U.N. Security Council statement backing U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s mission to end the violence, in a show of unity with the United States and Europe.
Moscow and Beijing had previously vetoed two Western-backed resolutions supported by Arab states.
“Clearly Russia doesn’t want to be seen as Assad’s last line of defence,” said Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre think tank.
Russia has not budged on its most adamant demand: that Assad must not be pushed out by foreign powers using the Security Council to promote “regime change”, as President-elect Vladimir Putin and other top officials say happened last year in Libya.
But the criticism, and support for the statement, are signs that Russia is hedging its bets about Assad’s fate and wants as strong a hand as possible in shaping Syria’s future in the event that he is forced out.
Putin may have calculated that a strong role in a peace settlement, and a chance for some sway in a post-Assad Syria, is worth more than close ties with a leader who could be doomed.
“Russia will not be focused on keeping Assad in power for the sake of keeping Assad in power,” said Trenin.
The U.N. statement is not binding, and Moscow bought time for Assad by negotiating the removal of a specific one-week deadline for the government to comply with the council’s demands or face potential “further steps”, which Russia could block.
It also leaves plenty of room for Syria’s government and the Kremlin to blame Assad’s opponents for continued violence, and includes no direct call for Assad to step aside to make way for a political dialogue - a condition Russia said was unacceptable.
By cementing Annan’s central role in peace efforts, Russia may hope to keep the issue close to the United Nations, where it has veto power in the Security Council - and stem any efforts by Western and Gulf Arab nations to seize the initiative.
If Assad does go, Russia would face a huge challenge in winning over his opponents, angered by Russia’s refusal to push for his ouster and by its vetoes of two resolutions condemning his government for the bloodshed.
The stakes are high. Syria has bought billions of dollars worth of Russian arms and hosts a supply and maintenance facility on the Mediterranean coast that is Russia’s only military base outside the former Soviet Union.
The Kremlin may hope to steer Syria toward a transition with political change superficial enough to strengthen Moscow’s hope of maintaining strong ties with Syria, its firmest foothold in the Middle East.
The intensity of the conflict in Syria means the time when that was possible may have passed, said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs.
But he said that Russia had used its firm stance in recent months “to tell the West and Arab countries very clearly and decisively that ... Russia’s position must be heeded.”
That was crucial for Putin, who is now prime minister and returns to the Kremlin for a six-year presidential term in May.
Facing protests at home, he made accusations of U.S. and NATO meddling abroad a theme of his campaign, and had sharply criticised the March 2011 Security Council resolution that authorised NATO military intervention in Libya.
Russia let that resolution pass by abstaining. He accused NATO nations of overstepping their mandate and using the green light from the Security Council to back rebels who drove Gaddafi from power.
While Lavrov’s language was strong, Russia’s insistence that it is not backing Assad is nothing new. Russia has repeatedly said its stance has been driven by the desire to uphold international law, protect a sovereign state from outside interference and avert civil war, not by self-interest.
Putin rarely spoke of the Syrian conflict until recent weeks, and when he did it was to say that Assad was no ally and Russia had no special relationship with Syria.
In the radio interview, Lavrov displayed cool indifference to the man he met last month on a visit to Damascus.
Asked whether it would be better for Assad to resign and leave Syria for Moscow or Belarus than to end up hiding like Gaddafi, he said that “nobody is inviting him to Moscow” and that it was “up to Assad” and the Syrian people to decide his political future.