Germany hopes for Russian rethink on Syria

March 5, 2012 - 11:56 AM
Russia Election

Russian Prime Minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin, center, greets his supporters at his election headquarters in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, Monday, March 5, 2012. Putin has claimed victory in Russia's presidential election, thanking his supporters for helping foil foreign plots aimed to weaken the country, an election which the opposition and independent observers say has been marred by widespread violations. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

BERLIN (AP) — Germany's foreign minister said Monday that he hopes Russia will recognize that it is on "the wrong side of history" and rethink its stance on Syria now its presidential election is over, but his Russian counterpart gave no indication of an about-turn.

Russia — along with China, another veto-wielding power on the U.N. Security Council — has stood by Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose regime's crackdown on a popular uprising has left thousands dead over the past year. Moscow has blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution against Damascus and accused the West of fueling the conflict by backing the Syrian opposition.

Germany, along with the U.S. and European allies as well as Arab nations, has strongly advocated U.N. action.

Now that campaigning is over in Russia and Vladimir Putin has sealed his return to the presidency, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he hopes Moscow will rethink its approach.

"I hope that Russia now, after the elections and with a clear view, will see that it stands on the wrong side of history, and that the people in Syria who are standing up for democracy and their freedom need solidarity from the international community," Westerwelle said.

He expressed hope Moscow will see "that this is not about diminishing Russian interests in the region."

Syria is Russia's last remaining ally in the Middle East. Moscow has maintained close ties with Damascus since the Cold War, when Syria was led by the current leader's father, Hafez Assad.

Moscow fears condemnation by the Security Council could pave the way for military intervention against Assad, as it did against Moammar Gadhafi in Libya last year.

Syria has also repeatedly ignored requests from U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos to be allowed to visit the country, but Amos said Monday that Damascus had now given her permission to go there this week.

Putin, Russia's prime minister for the past four years, called last week for both Syrian government and opposition forces to pull out of besieged cities to end the bloodshed, adding that Western refusal to make that demand of opponents of Assad has encouraged them to keep fighting.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said Russia is an "indispensable partner" in resolving the crisis, and said Paris would continue trying to convince Moscow to "support the efforts of the Arab League and to come to the aid of the Syrian people."

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave no indication Monday that Moscow could soften its stance. He said Russia's own draft resolution demanding that both the government and the opposition end bloodshed and sit down for talks has remained on the table.

"I don't think there is a need for any new initiatives," Lavrov said following talks in Moscow with his Jordanian counterpart.

"It's not that everything depends on Russia," he said. "We shouldn't expect one another to take any action, but sit down together and decide what steps need to be taken so that the Syrians stop shooting at each other."

He said that his meeting with counterparts from the Arab League set for this weekend in Cairo would offer a chance to again analyze the situation.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in Prague that the meeting offered a chance for Putin "to be able to push forward on Syria in a collegiate way with the rest of international community."

Noting that humanitarian aid is badly needed in the besieged city of Homs, she said: "We need to see Russia participate in helping us achieve that and to recognize that there needs to be a new leadership in Syria."

But Alexander Rahr, a Russia expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations, said trying to move Moscow with the "moral demand that something has to be done" wasn't a recipe for success.

Rahr said tensions between Russia and the West over the issue were "not just about Syria, but about the future of the world order," and it would take closer NATO-Russia relations and resolving a dispute over NATO's planned missile defense system to resolve that.

He pointed to Russia's desire "not constantly to be a junior partner of the West" and to worries over a perceived disregard for countries' sovereignty, among other things.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed Syria in a telephone conversation with Putin on Monday, Merkel spokesman Steffen Seibert said.

In a statement, he said the two "agreed to stay in contact on this and other questions," but gave no further details.

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Vladimir Isachenkov contributed from Moscow, Karel Janicek from Prague and Sarah DiLorenzo from Paris.