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Russia, in fact, has shown itself very leery of the uprising in Syria. It vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution aimed at pressuring Syria's president to stop his crackdown on protestors. And Russia's support for Syria's Bashar al-Assad has put it at odds with not just the West but also the Arab world. That has some analysts in Russia doubting whether the Kremlin really has a cogent strategy for the Middle East. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports.
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: The dilemma for Russian policy in the Arab world can be illustrated by two very different events that took place this week. On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was greeted by cheering crowds of Assad supporters in Damascus.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Foreign language spoken)
FLINTOFF: Lavrov said Russia was willing to serve as a mediator in the conflict, although Assad's forces continued their assault on the opposition.
Meanwhile, a very different scenario was playing out in New York. Russia's UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, appeared at a hastily called news conference to deny rumors that he had threatened the prime minister of Qatar. The rumors, which were widely circulated in the Arab media, said that Churkin had warned the Qatari leader that Russia would wipe Qatar off the map.
VITALY CHURKIN: There was nothing, no even hint of any threats, intimidation, rudeness from me or from the prime minister of Qatar for that matter.
FLINTOFF: Russia's relations with Qatar have been strained since December, when Russia's ambassador to that country was allegedly manhandled by customs officials in Doha. Although Churkin denied using any bullying tactics, he added something that sounded vaguely like a warning.
CHURKIN: Apparently somebody is trying very hard, in order to drive a wedge between Russia and, you know, the Arab world. If it's somebody who is really coming from the Arab world, I think there is a very good Russian saying, which they, I think, should keep in mind: don't spit into a well. You may well need it for a drink of water.
FLINTOFF: At this point, it's unclear who needs whom.
Analyst Yevgeny Satanovsky says Russia doesn't really need Syria as a trading partner. Satanovsky is president of the Moscow Institute for Middle Eastern Studies. He says Russia's support for Syria is part of a pragmatic effort to contain Islamic extremism by balancing opposing factions.
YEVGENY SATANOVSKY: Russians understand there are no non-dictatorship regimes in the Middle East. There is no chance for democracy of the Western style in the Middle East. And we try make balance.
FLINTOFF: But other analysts say Russia needs to be careful of its image in the Arab world.
Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, points out that Russia's stand on Syria puts it at odds with important members of the Arab League, such as Saudi Arabia.
DMITRI TRENIN: Saudi Arabia has enormous leverage on the global oil market. Saudi Arabia has resources that could be used to minimize Russia's control of parts of its own country.
FLINTOFF: He means the North Caucasus, the region that includes volatile areas such as Chechnya.
Trenin says that what Foreign Minister Lavrov tried to do in Damascus this week should have been done months ago, when the Arab Spring protests first erupted.
TRENIN: If Russia wanted to uphold its prestige as an important player, it needed to engage, more fully, in looking for a peaceful resolution to the Syrian conflict.
FLINTOFF: Both analysts say one of Russia's mains concern is keeping a lid on Islamic radicalism, the kind that's spreading in the Muslim parts of Russia's own territory.
Satanovsky says Russian policy seeks to play off the Islamic fundamentalist regimes of the Arab world against Iran. In putting such strong and public support behind the Syrian regime, though, Russia has put itself at a pivot point in the major struggles of the Arab World. It's not clear whether it has a strategy to affect the balance there.
Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow.
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