Washington Bureau

02.01.14

Russian Foreign Minister: We Can’t Get Assad to Do Anything

The Obama administration expects the Russian government to force Bashar al Assad to make concessions that could lead to peace, but Russia simply can't do it, according to its own foreign minister.

Russia is not able to pressure the Syrian regime to make concessions to the Syrian opposition, at least not without the help of other international actors, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Saturday.

Lavrov spoke at the Munich Security Conference about the recently failed first round of peace talks between the Syrian government and the Syrian Opposition Coalition in Geneva, mediated by U.N. Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi. At the same conference on Friday, Brahimi called on Russia to use its alleged influence with the Syrian regime to encourage them to return to Geneva next month for another round of talks and to be more constructive if they do. The first round failed to achieve any progress even on ancillary issues, such as humanitarian access to the besieged city of Homs.

“Why hasn’t Russia been able to put more pressure on the Assad regime to make even small concessions?” The Daily Beast asked Lavrov. “Is it that Russia is unwilling or unable to use its influence in Syria?”

“Russia can do nothing alone,” Lavrov responded. “When people say Russia must or Russia should ensure humanitarian access and ensure dismantling of chemical weapons on schedule and see to it that Assad disappears, all those questions are addressed to us, but we cannot do anything alone.”

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The Syrian civil war is still raging, with little hope for a solution, and civilians are still suffering.

Lavrov said that the humanitarian situation is “outrageous” but that access to the city of Homs is “some sort of symbol.” The international community should also consider the humanitarian situation in cities controlled by the rebels, such as Aleppo, he said. He reported allegations that the opposition was demanding prisoner releases before allowing humanitarian access to Homs and using women and children as human shields, therefore it was not the regime’s fault.

“I can assure you that we are putting daily pressure on the Syrian government," he said. “It’s a difficult situation and to try to convince a government that is waging a war to make gestures, this is a very difficult task.”

The Russian Foreign Minister said the U.S. and other international actors should also work with the Syrian government. The upcoming second round of Geneva 2 will deal with humanitarian issues and prisoner releases, as a means of building trust toward a discussion of more fundamental issues, he added. Lavrov discussed the next round of peace talks with Secretary of State John Kerry, Brahimi, and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon Friday night on the sidelines of the conference

Lavrov criticized the Syrian Opposition Coalition as being weak and called on the international community to allow the Damascus based opposition, which is said to be too close to the Assad regime, to attend the next round of peace talks.

“The internal opposition should be invited to Geneva 2. They say it is being loyal to the government. I think there is nothing wrong with them being loyal to the country,” he said. “Russia can do nothing alone. The United States cannot do anything alone. But we can do something positive together.”

Lavrov also responded to a question from former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder, who asked Lavrov to discuss the recent revelation that Russia has allegedly violated the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The Daily Beast first reported in November that the U.S. government believes Russia has breached its treaty obligations. The New York Times confirmed that report this week, adding the detail that Russia had been been testing of ground based cruise missiles in violation of the INF Treaty.

“Leakages I do not comment upon ever,” Lavrov said, referring to the reports of treaty violations, which he called “unhelpful.”

Lavrov then argued that U.S. missile defense in Europe were also a concern for Russia in the context of the INF Treaty. Russia has repeatedly raised concerns through private diplomatic channels that the rockets used as targets for U.S. interceptors constitute INF Treaty violations.

“We still expect explanations and they can raise any doubts about us through that channel,” he said.