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Syria Faces Pressure From A Reliable Ally

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Syria Faces Pressure From A Reliable Ally

Middle East

Syria Faces Pressure From A Reliable Ally

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

In a televised address today, Syria's foreign minister lashed out at new economic sanctions from Europe. He also promised democracy in Syria within months. His remarks followed a speech by President Bashar al-Assad on Monday. The president's offer to solve four months of unrest with a national dialogue was widely condemned as too little, too late, not only by Syria's critics but also by its friends, Turkey and Russia.

NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Beirut.

DEBORAH AMOS: Syria's foreign minister changed the tone of Syria's message: more direct and blunt. He accused Europe of playing with fire for imposing a new round of economic sanctions.

Mr. WALID MOALLEM (Foreign Minister, Syria): (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: We will forget that Europe is on the map, the combative foreign minister said.

But Moallem also called on Syrian dissidents to come to Damascus for talks. He invited political exiles home and promised constitutional change. Moallem added meat to the bones of the president's speech on Monday. Assad's remarks were dismissed by dissidents, condemned in Washington and Europe but also disappointed Syria's allies.

Fatwa Gerges, a Middle East specialist at the London School of Economics, says the foreign minister tried to shape the record of what Syria has put on the table.

Professor FATWA GERGES (Middle Eastern Politics/International Relations, London School of Economics): What he was really trying to do, Moallem, was to focus on the positive elements buried deep in President Assad's speech.

AMOS: Those positive elements didn't impress allies, Turkey or Russia. Within a day of Assad's speech, Russia's prime minister, Vladimir Putin, called for international pressure on Syria to stop the bloodshed at a news conference in Paris.

Mr. VLADIMIR PUTIN (Prime Minister, Russia): (Russian language spoken)

AMOS: Putin said he would cooperate with France, the country with the toughest stance on Syria. It's a sign of an evolving policy, says Gerges.

Prof. GERGES: Russian leaders now have publicly criticized the repressive conduct of the Syrian regime, but there is a marked pronounced difference between the Russian position and the Western position.

AMOS: The pronounced differences are at the United Nations. Russia has consistently threatened to veto any Security Council resolution condemning Syria that also opens the door to international intervention. Russia has criticized NATO's air campaign in Libya launched by a U.N. resolution.

Blake Hounshell, editor of Foreign Policy magazine and based in Qatar, says the Russians have stepped up criticism but are unlikely to change the policy on a U.N. vote.

Mr. BLAKE HOUNSHELL (Managing Editor, Foreign Policy Magazine): I think Russia would like to have some sort of mediating role, but they're not ready to put serious pressure on the regime.

AMOS: Russia has a long history with Syria, an ally in the Cold War. Now, the alliance is based mostly on trade, military hardware and a presence on the Syria's coast, says Gerges.

Prof. GERGES: Russia has a major naval base in Syria.

AMOS: And that shapes Russian views, he says, in the way that a U.S. naval base in Bahrain shaped the American response to Bahrain's crackdown.

Prof. GERGES: The U.S. criticism of Bahrain was not as pronounced as its criticism of Yemen and Libya.

AMOS: But Russia has done more than criticize. Russia announced the first meeting with Syrian opposition members next week. Hounshell says it's a sign of the role Moscow expects to play.

Mr. HOUNSHELL: Russia wants to be a player. It's also about hedging their bets a little bit. I think the Russians see the regime as not fundamentally threatened, but they might as well open up some contacts with the opposition just in case.

AMOS: The dissidents say they will lobby Russia to vote against Syria at the U.N., but Hounshell believes Russia has other plans.

Mr. HOUNSHELL: So I think part of what Russia is trying to do here is be helpful to the Syrian regime by convincing these folks to come to the table.

AMOS: That was the message today from Syria's foreign minister: come to the table. But Syria's fractured political opposition insists there can be no talks until the killing stops.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut.

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