WYSO

Syria Faces Pressure From A Reliable Ally

Jun 22, 2011
Originally published on June 22, 2011 9:40 pm

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem lashed out Wednesday at new economic sanctions from Europe, but he promised democracy in Syria within months.

In a television address, Moallem accused Europe of playing with fire for imposing a new round of economic sanctions. We will forget that Europe is on the map, he said.

But Moallem also called on Syrian dissidents to come to Damascus for talks. He invited political exiles home and promised constitutional change, adding meat to the bones of President Bashar Assad's speech Monday.

Assad's offer to solve four months of unrest with a national dialogue was dismissed by dissidents and condemned in Washington and Europe. But it also disappointed Syria's allies.

Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East specialist at the London School of Economics, says Moallem tried to shape the record of what Syria put on the table.

"What he was really trying to do, Moallem, was to focus on the positive elements buried deep in President Assad's speech," Gerges said.

But those positive elements did not impress allies Turkey or Russia. Within a day of Assad's speech, Russian Prime Minster Vladimir Putin called for international pressure on Syria to stop the bloodshed. At a news conference in Paris, Putin said he would cooperate with France, the country with the toughest stance on Syria. It's a sign of an evolving policy, Gerges said.

"Russian leaders have publicly criticized the repressive conduct of the Syrian regime, but there is a marked pronounced difference between the Russian position and the Western position," he said.

The pronounced difference is at the United Nations. Russia has consistently threatened to veto any Security Council resolution condemning Syria that also opens the door to international intervention. Russia has criticized NATO's air campaign in Libya, launched by a U.N. resolution.

Blake Hounshell, a Qatar-based editor of Foreign Policy magazine, says the Russians have stepped up criticism but are unlikely to change the policy on a U.N. vote.

"I think Russia would like to have a mediating role, but they are not ready to put serious pressure on the regime," Hounshell said.

Russia has a long history with Syria, an ally during the Cold War. Now, the alliance is based mostly on trade, military hardware and a presence on Syria's coast, Gerges says.

Russia has a major naval base in Syria, he notes, and that shapes Russian views in the way that a U.S. naval base in Bahrain shaped the U.S. response to Bahrain's crackdown on protesters.

"The U.S. criticism of Bahrain was not as pronounced as Yemen and Libya," Gerges said.

But Russia has done more than criticize. Moscow announced the first meeting with Syrian opposition members next week. Hounshell says it is sign of the role Moscow expects to play.

"Russia wants to be a player. It's also about hedging their bets a little bit," he said. "I think the Russians see the regime as not being fundamentally threatened, but they might as well open up some contacts with the opposition just in case."

The dissidents say they will lobby Russia to vote against Syria at the U.N., but Hounshell says he believe Russia has other plans.

"I think part of what Russia is trying to do here is to be helpful to the Syrian regime by convincing these folks to come to the table," he said.

That was the message Wednesday from Moallem, Syria's foreign minister: Come to the table. But Syria's fractured political opposition insists there can be no talks until the killing stops.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Beirut.

DEBORAH AMOS: Syria's foreign minister changed the tone of Syria's message: more direct and blunt. He accused Europe of playing with fire for imposing a new round of economic sanctions.

NORRIS: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: Fatwa Gerges, a Middle East specialist at the London School of Economics, says the foreign minister tried to shape the record of what Syria has put on the table.

P: What he was really trying to do, Moallem, was to focus on the positive elements buried deep in President Assad's speech.

AMOS: Those positive elements didn't impress allies, Turkey or Russia. Within a day of Assad's speech, Russia's prime minister, Vladimir Putin, called for international pressure on Syria to stop the bloodshed at a news conference in Paris.

NORRIS: (Russian language spoken)

AMOS: Putin said he would cooperate with France, the country with the toughest stance on Syria. It's a sign of an evolving policy, says Gerges.

P: Russian leaders now have publicly criticized the repressive conduct of the Syrian regime, but there is a marked pronounced difference between the Russian position and the Western position.

AMOS: Blake Hounshell, editor of Foreign Policy magazine and based in Qatar, says the Russians have stepped up criticism but are unlikely to change the policy on a U.N. vote.

NORRIS: I think Russia would like to have some sort of mediating role, but they're not ready to put serious pressure on the regime.

AMOS: Russia has a long history with Syria, an ally in the Cold War. Now, the alliance is based mostly on trade, military hardware and a presence on the Syria's coast, says Gerges.

P: Russia has a major naval base in Syria.

AMOS: And that shapes Russian views, he says, in the way that a U.S. naval base in Bahrain shaped the American response to Bahrain's crackdown.

P: The U.S. criticism of Bahrain was not as pronounced as its criticism of Yemen and Libya.

AMOS: But Russia has done more than criticize. Russia announced the first meeting with Syrian opposition members next week. Hounshell says it's a sign of the role Moscow expects to play.

NORRIS: Russia wants to be a player. It's also about hedging their bets a little bit. I think the Russians see the regime as not fundamentally threatened, but they might as well open up some contacts with the opposition just in case.

AMOS: The dissidents say they will lobby Russia to vote against Syria at the U.N., but Hounshell believes Russia has other plans.

NORRIS: So I think part of what Russia is trying to do here is be helpful to the Syrian regime by convincing these folks to come to the table.

AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.