Britain’s Foreign Minister William Hague came to Russia talking tough. It was time, he tweeted, for “Russia to support rapid and unequivocal pressure” on the Syrian government, and “accountability for [its] crimes”.
But his hope that the massacre in Houla would be a turning point for Russia’s stance on Syria seems to have been dashed. After talks with his counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, Hague admitted that there are still “unresolved difficulties” between the two countries.
Britain wants President Bashar al-Assad to step down. Russia would rather see a different outcome. Lavrov argues that Russia does put pressure on the Assad government “almost every day”.
But the West, Lavrov insists, has to put equal pressure on Syria’s rebels. He criticised those who call for peace through regime change. The priority, Lavrov says, is to stop the violence.
Russia is in a difficult and isolated position. Moscow has been a friend of Syria for decades, and has vetoed two UN Security Council resolutions condemning the killing.
It needs to look after its strategic and economic interests in Syria, but not appear too much like the protector of a repressive and violent government.
So Russia has long argued that though comprehensive reforms have to be made by Assad, much of the violence is being perpetrated by Syria’s armed opposition. The massacre in Houla, Lavrov said, was probably the responsibility of both parties. Only a proper investigation would establish the truth.
What the two men did agree on is that Kofi Annan’s six-point plan is still the best and only way to bring peace to Syria. This calls for Syrian-led political reform a UN-supervised cessation of violence humanitarian assistance release of prisoners free movement for the press and the right to demonstrate peacefully. But after Houla, many commentators have pronounced the plan effectively dead. There is no official Plan B.
Russia’s position has shifted more in line with the West and the Arab League. Its patience with Assad’s government isn’t limitless.
Russia contributed to Sunday’s UN Security Council statement condemning the Houla massacre, rather than blocking it. It calls on Syria’s government to stop using heavy weapons in towns and cities, and to pull troops back to their barracks.
But to make the statement palatable for the Russians it calls for violence from “all parties” to cease – and recognises the sovereignty, independence, and unity of Syria. Russia doesn’t want another Libyan-style foreign military intervention.
There are the murmurings of a different approach, being called the “Yemenskii Variant” in Moscow and Washington.
If Assad is to leave, the theory goes, most of his government should stay. It’s what happened when President Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down in Yemen.
The approach would hopefully avoid a chaotic power vacuum (and allow Russia to retain its influence and interests in Syria), while the West would get the path to change it seeks.
It’s an embryonic idea, at best. But with Annan’s plan looking increasingly moribund (despite Hague and Lavrov’s commitment to it), divided and impotent global powers are increasingly aware of the need to find something else to try.