Frustrated Arabs urge action from Russia
Disappointed and bewildered by Russia's continued backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, several Arab dignitaries and political analysts have called on Moscow to take a clear stance and urgent action to put an end to bloodshed in Syria.
"We believe that the Russian position on Syria is wrong," Mohamed Tharwat, the head of the Egypt-based Strategic Studies Center, said during an international Valdai conference held over the weekend in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi. "We used to look at Russia as a supporter of the Arabs; now, we see that Russia is supporting their killing."
Meanwhile, Russian analysts and officials have argued that Moscow's position on Syria aims to protect its statehood and undercut what Russia calls Western attempts to unseat unwanted regimes by supporting the armed opposition.
Alexei Vasilyev from the Russian Academy of Sciences said he believed international media was unfairly "demonizing" Russia over it's attitude towards the Syrian regime, "but those are lies."
"What is Bashar al-Assad for Russia? An ally? This is not serious," he said.
Moscow's primary concern is to protect the country's sovereignty, Vasilyev said.
"We cannot import Western values [to the Arab world] if the people do not want this," he said.
'Chess board' for Moscow and Washington
Russia and China, both permanent United Nations Security Council members, have vetoed two UN resolutions on Syria in October and early February.
Moscow has threatened to continue blocking what it calls Western attempts to interfere in Syria's domestic affairs and influence the regime change there. The dismissed draft resolutions have blamed the violence in Syria exclusively on the Assad regime. Russia has insisted that both the regime and the protesters should be held responsible for the bloodshed which has already claimed more than 5,400 lives, according to UN estimates.
Hany El-Sayed, a veteran Egyptian journalist, said the Russian-Chinese veto on a UN resolution condemning the Syrian regime "was very much criticized by the Arabs and triggered a lot of anger."
"The veto shows that the Middle East is like a chess board in the war between Russia and the United States," El-Sayed said. "Russia is trying to make decisions that would undermine U.S. influence in the Middle East."
Syria is one of Russia's major arms purchaser, and hosts Russia's ship support and maintenance base - Moscow's only access to the Mediterranean - in its port of Tartus. But "it is not right to explain Russia's position by mercantile interests alone," said Vitaly Naumkin, who heads the Moscow-based Institute of Oriental Studies.
"We are not saying that Russia should change its interests in favor of those of the West," said Omar Ibrahim al-Zubaidi, the head of the British Broadcasting Corporation's Saudi office. "But there are people who are being killed by soldiers. And people have the right to demand changes."
'We don't want another Libya'
Some Arab analysts, meanwhile, appear to have taken a "middle of the fence" position.
"I can understand why Russia is acting as it does [toward Syria]," Nourhan El-Sheikh, a professor in Political Science at Cairo University, told RIA Novosti on the sidelines of the conference. "Russia is not defending Assad; it is defending Syria as a state."
She said that should a war begin in Syria, it was likely to "split into parts, which would affect the entire Arab world."
"We don't want another Libya," she said.
But "unfortunately, ordinary Arab people don't understand Russia's behavior," the analyst admitted, adding: "Russia should better explain its position" if it wants its voice to be heard in the Arab street.
Ahmed Najib Chebbi, a former Tunisian presidential candidate from the opposition, said "Russia has always been a favorite friend in the Arab world."
"But let me tell you the truth; now, the role of Russia has shrunk a little," he added.
Naumkin said there is an "overwhelming feeling" in Russia's public opinion that the country was "fooled" by its partners in the Libya case. Russia has abstained from a UN Security Council vote on a resolution that authorized a no-fly zone over Libya and has repeatedly criticized NATO for exceeding its mandate by openly supporting the Libyan opposition and playing a major role in overthrowing late President Muammar Gaddafi.
"Many in Russia believe it was a mistake not to block the resolution," Russian analyst Fyodor Lukyanov agreed. "The Libyan lesson has been learned by heart."
Since the Soviet collapse, Russia has lost its once immense influence in the Arab world, with the Syrian regime often viewed as Moscow's "last friend" among Arabs. But many regional analysts believe Russia is an "indispensable" player in overcoming the Syrian political standoff.
Samir Al-Taqi, a prominent Syrian academic who formerly advised Assad but who has now parted ways with the regime, said he believed Russia was a "force able to have a dialogue with various strata of the Syrian population." His comments were echoed by many other Arab analysts.
Russia's Vasilyev said he believed Moscow was "ready to cooperate with anyone" in power, including the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement which has gained the majority in parliamentary elections in Egypt.
As the Russian government is often criticized by domestic opposition and independent experts over a lack of initiative in its approach to the Middle East, Lebanese analyst Wassim Kalaajieh called for Moscow to adopt a "new strategy of cooperation with the Arab and Islamic world," an idea supported by Russia's Naumkin.
"We want the initiative to come from Russia to help Syrians solve the problem," said al-Zubaidi, adding that this would also help Moscow regain its lost positions in the region, both politically and economically.
Russian, Arab and Western experts have largely agreed that the Syrian opposition groups remain split and that, as Claire Spencer from Britain's Chatham House put it, it is difficult to understand "who is representing whom" in Syria.
"No one knows what the majority opinion in Damascus or Aleppo is," she said.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov reiterated at the conference Moscow's readiness to host dialogue between the Syrian authorities and opposition groups, but its members should first "distance themselves from radicals and terrorists," who have been increasignly active in Syria, he said.
Russia has been trying to persuade its Western partners at the Security Concil that the armed gangs were among those fighting the Assad regime, but many Western analysts still doubt this can be an argument to justify Assad's crackdown on protesters.
"It's without question that the vast majority of violence has come from the security forces," Judith Kipper from the Washington-based Institute of World Affairs (IWA) said. "The vast majority of people in the street are peaceful demonstrators."
"We can say that violence comes from both sides, but it's not true," said al-Taqi, the Syrian academic. According to him, "more than 50 percent of the Syrian territory is not politically controlled by the current regime."
Bogdanov said even if this were true, at least half of Syria was still in Assad's hands, "which backs our position" that the regime has not lost its power.
Despite widespread calls for Assad's immediate resignation, some observers believe that "peaceful rather than chaotic changes" would be a better way for the Syrians to fulfill their aspirations.
"I see the willingness on Assad's part to change the political situation, to drop a one-party state and bring about a multiparty system," Elias Samo, a former professor at the Aleppo University in Syria, said, adding that this was "a step forward by the regime."
Assad announced last week a national referendum on a new constitution to be held on February 26. The draft constitution is designed to end the Baath party's nearly half-century-old monopoly on power, creating an oportunity for a multi-party political system. Yet some analysts have argued that Assad has simply been trying to buy time for his regime by creating the appearance of reforms.