Russia May Be Key To Syria Talks

Russia may be the world power with the greatest influence over Syria. As diplomatic talks on Syria continue in Geneva between the two sides, what is Russia's role? NPR's Rachel Martin talks to Russian-American journalist Vladimir Pozner.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Talks between the Syrian government and the opposition have now moved to separate rooms in Geneva. The two sides met face to face this morning but so far have failed to find agreement on a humanitarian cease-fire that would allow humanitarian aid into the city of Homs. U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said today that he hopes people will be able to leave Homs in the next few days. Women and children are already beginning to depart. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In fact, women and children have not yet begun to leave.]

Russia helped bring Assad's government into these talks. Today, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the situation in Geneva extremely grave, adding that, quote, "positions are polarized, emotions are on the edge." To hear more about Russia's influence over Syria, we reached Vladimir Pozner, a journalist based in Moscow and the author of a book on U.S.-Russian relations. I started by asking him what Russia might have said or done to get the Syrian government to the negotiating table.

VLADIMIR POZNER: Well, we can only guess because obviously, that's not been announced. But it's clear that Russia does have a certain influence on Assad. Russia has a profound interest in preserving whatever influence it still has in that part of the world. Once upon a time, as you will recall, the Soviet Union had a very, very strong influence out there, which gradually ebbed away. And I think that the present leadership, as in Putin, have a real interest in trying to bring Russia back into that part of the world, which is seen as being very important. And Mr. Assad, looking back, understands the importance of having workable relations with Russia.

MARTIN: Does it end there, or are there real tangible points of leverage that Russia can manipulate?

POZNER: You know, that's hard to say. In this particular case, Syria, its leadership, has to make a decision: Which way is it going to go? On the one hand, it has a certain support on the part of Russia that says, you should not use force; you should sit down and negotiate at the table, and we do not demand Mr. Assad resign. On the other side, it's got this uprising where you have a lot of very, very strong Islamist groups who seem to be upheld, to a certain extent, by the West. So when there is that choice between the two - and clearly Mr. Assad prefers the first - then that side does have leverage.

MARTIN: Russia, of course, is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. The United States, Europe and other allies need Russia on board, to a certain degree, in these talks. What's in it for Russia? Do they benefit at all from an unstable Syria?

POZNER: I don't think Russia - or any other country - benefits from an unstable Syria. Clearly not. But if Russia can play a role that would lead to some kind of resolution of this situation, Russia would benefit immensely because it would be seen as a kind of - not a peacemaker, but a country that can play a positive role in these very, very dangerous hot spots.

MARTIN: How much of that has to do with the Sochi Olympics? And do you think that it is legitimately an opportunity for the United States to put political pressure on Russia?

POZNER: You know, that's a very good question. And it's one that in my opinion, has a very, very clear answer. The one thing you don't want to do is to put an ultimatum to the Russian leadership. It will be totally counterproductive. So if you put pressure on, it's got to be on some kind of private channels. If you know who Mr. Putin is, if you have any idea of what this man is like, you have to understand that he will not submit to pressure. We are all human beings, and there is psychology here. You can talk to him; you can explain your viewpoint - I think he's a good listener. But if you say, you know, if you don't do this we're going to do that, it's going to be counterproductive. That's very much my feeling.

MARTIN: Vladimir Pozner is a journalist based in Moscow. Thank you so much for talking with us.

POZNER: Thank you.

MARTIN: And to be clear, U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi says he's been told by the Syrian government women and children will - hopefully - be allowed to start leaving the besieged city of Homs starting tomorrow.

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Correction Jan. 26, 2014

In the audio of this story, we incorrectly state that women and children have already begun leaving the besieged Syrian city of Homs. In fact, international mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said in a news conference on Sunday that he'd been told by the Syrian government it hopes women and children will be able to start leaving the besieged city of Homs by Monday.

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