Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pulled no punches yesterday about who is behind the violence in Syria and the Russian response to it. During a televised press conference at the Foreign Ministry in Moscow, Lavrov raised the question of foreign intervention in Syria on behalf of the so-called rebels and stood firm on the question of UN-sanctioned military intervention to change the regime in Damascus. He said Russia is "concerned with the reaction on behalf of outside players that openly support armed groups in Syria but on the other hand, demand decisive steps by the international community to change the regime" in Syria. Lavrov said that the turmoil in Syria has happening because "players from outside the region are pushing the opposition to defy efforts at compromise." He reiterated the Putin government's steadfast position that Russia "shall not sanction in the U.N. Security Council the use of force. The consequences for the Middle East would be dire."
Lavrov noted the calls to blame every act of violence on the regime. "The problem is not just the regime," he said, and, pointing to the Houla and Qubeir massacres, and terrorist attacks, said that these and other acts of violence "are the result of confrontation fueled by outside forces."
On the Annan plan, Lavrov said that there is "no alternative to implementation for a peaceful settlement." The Western policy of regime change, he said, means more violence. "The Annan plan makes peace possible," but it doesn't "fit into the logic of the West which wants the international community to sanction intervention."
To implement the plan, as well as relevant UN Security Council resolutions, Lavrov put forward the Russian proposal, first mooted yesterday, for an international conference on Syria, to include the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iran, and Iraq, as well as the Arab League in general and Saudi Arabia in particular, and also the European Union. "We want this conference to be a venue for frank and open dialogue that would make it clear whether it's realistic to find agreement on coordinated, targeted actions between the government and all groups of opposition, and the sooner the better."
During his remarks, Lavrov pointed to the reported experience of the British journalist Alex Thomson, attacks on Russians inside Syria and the refugee situation. While the West expresses concern for the 80,000 Syrian refugees outside Syria, there are a large number of internally displaced Syrians (the ICRC says between 1 and 1.5 million) as well as 1 million Iraqi refugees and half-a-million Palestinian refugees inside Syria. "Is anyone thinking about them?" Lavrov asked.
Another indication of the seriousness with which Russia takes the Syrian situation, and the potential for Western military intervention, was the report, back on April 13, that the Russian navy would re-establish a permanent presence in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The publishing of the source report by RIA Novosti coincided with the announcement that the Syrian government had declared a ceasefire in accordance with the Annan plan. At the time, the Russian destroyer was on patrol off the Syrian coast, and was expected to be replaced by another destroyer from the Black Sea Fleet in May, though there's no report as to whether or not this exchange took place.
Lavrov's press conference was followed by a day of meetings in Moscow between U.S. envoy Fred Hof and Deputy Foreign Ministers Gennady Gatilov and Mikhail Bogdanov, during which Hof apparently pressed his interlocutors to support a "transition" that would see Bashar al Assad leave power. In Washington, meanwhile, UN Envoy Kofi Annan met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in what State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland described as an effort to craft a transition strategy and gain greater international support for that strategy, principally from Russia. Lavrov's remarks, today, indicate that Russia is not backing down from its opposition to a regime change-oriented external intervention.