Middle East
3:00 pm
Wed June 22, 2011

Syria Faces Pressure From A Reliable Ally

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem lashed out Wednesday at new economic sanctions from Europe, but 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.

"What he was really trying to do, Moallem, was to focus on the positive elements buried deep in President Assad's speech," said Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East specialist at the London School of Economics.

Gerges said Moallem tried to shape the record of what Syria put on the table.

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, the editor of Foreign Policy magazine who is based in Qatar, 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.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.