MOSCOW (Reuters) - Syrian opposition talks with Russia on a political transition in Damascus ended in discord on Wednesday, and an opposition leader accused Moscow of pursuing policies that were helping to prolong the bloodshed in the pivotal Arab country.
“The Syrian people don’t understand Russia’s position. How can Russia keep supplying arms? How can they keep vetoing resolutions? There needs to be an end to mass killings,” said Burhan Ghalioun of the exiled Syrian National Council (SNC).
But in a week in which Russia has drafted a new U.N. Security Council resolution and an official was quoted as saying it had suspended arms sales to Syria, a member of Syria’s opposition said a broader shift may be starting in Moscow.
“We’re trying to work out what exactly Russia is trying to do here. I think they’re looking for a genuine solution,” a member of the SNC delegation which held talks in Moscow said, asking not to be identified.
The delegation member said Russia, which has been Assad’s staunchest ally and has shielded Syria from more sanctions at the U.N. Security Council, was sending mixed signals.
“They say they are not holding on to Assad so strongly but then another minute they say ‘You guys must sit down and talk’, so they contradict themselves every few minutes.”
The signals from Moscow are indeed proving hard to read as the international community looks for an indication of whether Russia is ready to stop propping up Assad - a policy shift which other big powers say would help end a conflict Syrian opposition activists say has killed more than 17,000 people.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has reproached Russia and China - both veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council - for blocking a settlement, saying they should “get off the sidelines” and help.
Although it says its policies are not tied to any one person, Russia has been one of Assad’s few supporters, has sent him arms and foiled Western-led attempts to isolate him with U.N. sanctions as the violence has raged on.
But Moscow has increasingly shown its determination to play a role in ending Syria’s upheaval and stepped up its diplomatic efforts this week in particular. The Russians also held talks on Monday with another opposition group that wants Assad out of Syria after 42 years of domination by his family.
Helping resolve the crisis peacefully could help Moscow increase its international clout and keep a foothold in Syria and the Middle East if Assad goes. It might also help uphold Russia’s world view that conflicts should be resolved through diplomacy, not force, and should involve the United Nations.
“Russia went from a position of being an almost pariah state in January and February, when everyone blamed it for being unconstructive, to a position of being a key actor of the settlement,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russian in Global Affairs
“Now it’s very important to complete it with some kind of negotiated solution because if Assad is to be overthrown by force, Russia will lose all its gains from the past months.”
The Syrian opposition has made starting talks with the government conditional on Assad relinquishing power. Russia has said this is unacceptable and not part of the international peace plan laid out by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.
But on Monday, in his first speech outlining foreign policy goals, President Vladimir Putin said both sides in Syria must be forced to talk to one another.
Western diplomats have been proved wrong repeatedly when interpreting moves by Moscow as evidence that it was abandoning Assad. But some foreign policy experts suggest Moscow is now quietly considering solutions in which its interests will be maintained even without Assad in place.
“The situation is changing and no one in Russia is naive enough to expect Assad to stay long,” said Lukyanov.
He said Russia may now be intent on showing Assad that it has done everything it could to help him and convey to the opposition that if Russian interests are preserved in the future, Moscow is ready to facilitate some kind of transition.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pressed the Syrian National Council on the Annan plan and points agreed during a meeting with big powers in Geneva on June 30, which envisages a political transition but leave Assad’s fate open.
“Lavrov decisively called on counterparts to take a clear and unequivocal position confirming the readiness of the SNC to carry out its obligations,” a Foreign Ministry statement said.
But in a move that, if confirmed, may presage a Russian shift away from the authoritarian Syrian leader as rebel forces have gained some strength, a Russian arms trade official was quoted this week as saying Moscow would deliver no more weapons to Assad while the fighting continued.
Russia circulated a draft resolution at the United Nations on Tuesday to extend a U.N. monitoring mission in Syria now bottled up in hotels by the violence.
A source in the Russian navy said a Russian warship had left for Syria on Tuesday and another military source said four more were on their way there but that this had nothing to do with the conflict.
The sources said the vessels were carrying provisions to a small maintenance and repair facility that Russia maintains in the Syrian port of Tartous, the only naval base it has outside of the former Soviet Union.
Editing by Timothy Heritage and Mark Heinrich