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Syrian opposition leader blames Russia for 'suffering,' sees no change in Moscow's position
MOSCOW (AP) ¯¯¯ A prominent Syrian opposition leader said Wednesday that Russia's resistance to international intervention in the conflict was bringing misery and "suffering" to the violence-torn country.
Two Syrian opposition delegations visited Moscow this week, raising hopes that Russia could be pushed to accept the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad. But Syrian National Council head Abdelbaset Sieda said he saw "no change" in Moscow's stance after meeting with officials including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
"The Syrian people are suffering because of Russia, because of the position it has taken, because of its veto in the U.N. Security Council," Sieda said at a news conference. "The current regime uses Russian weapons against its own people."
More than 17,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011, according to Syrian activists. Russia says its current arms contracts with Syria do not include weapons that could be used against civilians.
Sieda called for intervention by the U.N. and said no dialogue with the regime was possible until Assad was ousted.
Both those demands are in sharp contrast to Russia's position. Russia strongly opposes international intervention and says that if Assad goes, it must be as the result of dialogue.
Russia and China have twice blocked U.N. condemnation of Syria's government and worked to water down U.N. plans for a transition at a conference in Geneva last month. At the conference, Russia insisted that any political transition have the "mutual consent" of both Assad's government and the opposition, essentially handing a veto on the peacemaking process to both sides.
Lavrov on Wednesday repeated Russia's support for non-intervention, and insisted that any solution would have to be decided by "Syrians themselves," and not by any foreign power.
Lavrov also expressed doubt that the fragmented Syrian opposition was ready to act as a real partner for dialogue with the regime. After a meeting on Monday with members of the Syrian Democratic Forum, another opposition group, the Russian Foreign Ministry stressed the need for "the Syrian opposition to act on one platform."
The invitation of two Syrian opposition groups to Moscow this week raised hopes that the Kremlin might be pursuing a new strategy, playing it safe by building ties and opening doors to the Syrian opposition. On Monday, President Vladimir Putin said that Russia would do all it could to "force" the regime and the opposition to discuss a sustainable solution to the conflict.
Some members of the Russian establishment have been vocal about engaging Syria's opposition. Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the upper house of parliament's international affairs committee, had stressed the need for cooperation with the Syrian National Council.
In an interview with the Ekho Moskvy radio station on Tuesday, Margelov said that Moscow was pushing for a more unified front by the opposition.
"We're trying to help these opposition groups agree amongst themselves so that there is some kind of united voice that can answer the united voice of the regime," he said.
Speculation about a change in Moscow's position came in the wake of the defection of Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, an official of the Assad regime and son of a former defense minister who helped Assad transition to power after the death of his father in 2000.
The general's arrival in Paris sparked hope for the U.S. and its European and Arab partners. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that Syrian leaders "are starting to vote with their feet" by abandoning the Assad regime, although no defections have followed that of Tlass.
Russia denies that it is propping up Assad, although its U.N. vetoes have amounted to de-facto support.
"Russia is hedging its bets, understanding that the regime may fall and that the opposition may come to power," independent Russian defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer said. "But there is no real sign of a change."
Russia loudly opposed international intervention in Libya and wants to prevent an analogous scenario in Syria, Russia's last close ally in the Middle East.
"After Libya, it's unreasonable that the Russian government would agree to any declaration of the U.N. that would allow for the occupation or attack of a country," said Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the independent Middle East Institute in Moscow.
Russia on Tuesday appeared to signal concern about the region by announcing it was sending 11 warships to the Mediterranean, some of which would dock at the Syrian port of Tartus, where Russia has a maintenance and operations base. Russia said the ships will take part in training and coordination exercises, but the flotilla's presence serves as a reminder of Russia's military potential in the region.