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Putin's softer stand on Syria greeted with skepticism

Demonstrators gather during a protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad after Friday prayers in Binsh near Idlib on March 2, 2012.

REUTERS/REUTERS

Russian analysts and Syrian rebels say they are skeptical of Vladimir Putin's comments that suggest the Kremlin is backing away from its support of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, questioning the Russian Prime Minister's motivations ahead of a pivotal election Sunday.

In taking a small, but very public, step away from Mr. al-Assad, analysts said, Mr. Putin gave away an ill-kept secret: that the Kremlin's motivations for blocking a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Mr. al-Assad's regime are intermingled with fears that a similar resolution could one day be used against other Russian allies, or even Mr. Putin himself.

Russian analysts interpreted Mr. Putin's comments that "we don't have a special relationship" with Syria and "it is up to the Syrians to decide who should run their country," as an effort to make a more refined point – that Moscow isn't backing Mr. al-Assad's bloody crackdown on opposition protesters, only seeking to ensure that the Security Council isn't repeatedly used to push for the toppling of autocratic leaders.

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With tens of thousands of Russians poised to take to the streets in the coming days to protest Mr. Putin's planned return to the country's presidency – raising the spectre of violence on the streets of Moscow – it's a position the Kremlin wants clearly understood.

"It's not an obvious or straightforward projection that Russia may be the next target [of a UN Security Council resolution] but the parallel is disquieting for Putin. He has this deep-seated fear and apprehension. He feels [Russia]needs to be on guard lest the West seek to do harm to us," said Masha Lipman, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Centre.

Mr. Putin is said to be furious at how NATO used a previous UN Security Council resolution, which in 2011 authorized the creation of a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent Moammar Gadhafi from using his air force against rebel forces there, as carte blanche for air strikes that helped anti-government rebels seize power in Tripoli. Using Russia's veto to prevent a resolution condemning the Assad regime was about drawing a line between what the Security Council should and shouldn't do when dealing with the internal political disputes of member countries.

"This [backing away]is a signal that we will not fall out with the West over Syria," Ms. Lipman said. "But [Mr. Putin's]point about not using the UN Security Council for regime change is sincere. He doesn't want such precedents to be created."

Especially not with Mr. Putin about to face the biggest challenge of his 12 years at Russia's helm. While he is expected to cruise to victory Sunday in a barely contested presidential election, opposition groups are mobilizing tens of thousands of demonstrators who are expected to take to the streets Monday to call for the election result to be thrown out and a new vote held without the Kremlin choosing who can run for office, and which messages reach the airwaves.

Some in Russia believe Mr. Putin's comments to the foreign media represented no shift at all, only propaganda aimed at softening Mr. Putin's image in the Western media. "He's very different when he's addressing foreign newspaper editors than he is when he's addressing a crowd in Moscow," said Andrei Piontkovsky, a political analyst with ties to the opposition movement, referring to a fiery speech last month when Mr. Putin warned of a Western plot to destabilize Russia.

Mr. Putin's claim that he's willing to let Syrians decide the fate of their country was also met with skepticism among the embattled opposition.

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Mahmoud Mosa, 40, a Syrian refugee who serves as a media co-ordinator at one of the camps inside the Turkish border, said that reaction among rebels and opposition activists has been muted. Syrians must wait to see whether Russia backs the revolution diplomatically and halts arms shipments to the regime, he said.

"Nobody here is really interested in what Putin said, because most people are worried about what is happening in Homs and Bab Amr," Mr. Mosa said, referring to a recent offensive by Syrian troops.

Mr. Mosa also speculated that the Russian president may be trying to soften his position on Syria ahead of a meeting with Arab foreign ministers next week.

During a visit to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is scheduled to discuss the Syrian crisis with his counterparts from the Gulf Co-operation Council – Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

"Putin is a liar, because we haven't seen any action from him," a Latakia-based activist at a rebel headquarters said. "He is playing games, and taking Syria's money and selling weapons. Our harbours in Tartus and Latakia are full of his ships, moving weapons, despite what he is saying."

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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