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Annan takes Syria peace plan to Russia

24, Mar, AFP

Syrian peace envoy Kofi Annan heads to Moscow on Saturday to gauge how far Russia is willing to push its key Arab ally after it finally joined a UN call on regime forces to pull back from protest cities. Annan will meet President Dmitry Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Sunday before flying to China, the other UN Security Council member resisting global efforts to condemn Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The UN-Arab League envoy will be carrying with him the embattled leader's answer to a peace plan under which Syria could begin a "political transition" to a representative government, with no specifically defined role for Assad.

Moscow backed Wednesday's non-binding Security Council statement in support of the initiative only after making sure it contained no implicit threat of further action should Assad fail to comply.

Washington's UN ambassador Susan Rice admitted that the UN call represented only "a modest step" towards ending a year of bloodshed that the opposition says has claimed more than 9,100 lives.

But it came amid growing signs that Moscow was beginning to lose patience with Annan, despite his commitment to massive new Russian arms purchases and the granting of key naval access to the Mediterranean Sea.

A top Kremlin-linked lamwker said Assad should treat the UN statement as "an insistent recommendation" whose implementation would determine the future course of relations between the two countries.

"Assad has to take the first step: he must pull the Syrian army out of large cities," the lower house of parliament's foreign affairs chief Mikhail Margelov said on Thursday.

"Russia's future position on the conflict will depend on how succesfully (the Syrian government) complies with the provisions spelled out in the Security Council statement," said Margelov. But analysts have warned that Russia's interests in Syria are too important for it to allow Western and regional powers to independently dictate the battle-scarred nation's fate.

Russia not only sells billions of dollars in arms to Syria but also relies on Damascus to lobby its interests in a region where Moscow has lost much of its influence in recent years.

Margelov echoed earlier comments by Lavrov, urging Assad to "urgently correct the numerous mistakes that he in Russia's official opinion has made."

But no Russian official has gone so far as to say that Assad has lost his legitimacy a stance taken by most Western powers since last year.

"Assad's position is difficult," one Kremlin official told Interfax on Friday. "I do not know whether he has prospects or not. But no one is predicting another 10 years in power for him."

The dramatic shift in tone but persistent refusal to join international calls for Assad to go means that "Russia is not wedded to this regime," said Maxim Yusin, foreign affairs correspondent of the daily newspaper Kommersant.

"Russia's main goal is to make sure that Assad's opponents do not grab all the power this would see Russia lose everything it has in Syria," said Yusin. "Annan's visit should tell us what Russia is willing to do should Assad not listen on this occasion."

Russia's immediate plans include a meeting next week with members of a moderate opposition group called the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change in Syria.

The alliance, which has previously refused to join the Syrian National Council's calls for urgent international intervention, appears to be viewed more favourably by the Kremlin.

"We think this organisation is no less and probably more influential than the Syrian National Council," said Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov.



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