By Jill Dougherty and Tim Lister
It's almost a throwback to the Cold War: a toxic mixture of distrust, weapons shipments and chess moves to preserve spheres of influence. But that's how Russia and the United States have been maneuvering over Syria.
Moscow's latest gambit is to propose a regional solution that hinges on Iran and Turkey helping implement the six-point peace plan developed by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The timing of the initiative is no accident. It was announced by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Beijing just as the U.S.-led Friends of Syria group gathered in Washington to plan further steps to isolate and ultimately remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Turkey for an informal gathering in Turkey of the so-called "Friends of Syria."
The proposal is similar to one the Washington Post reports Annan will propose this week to the United Nations Security Council, which could include bringing Iran to the table.
"The goal of such a meeting - unlike the so-called Friends of Syria meeting devoted to supporting the Syrian National Council and its radical demands - would be for all external players to agree, honestly and without double standards, to fulfill Kofi Annan's plan," Lavrov said.
The inclusion of Iran on Lavrov's list has not gone down well with the Obama administration. Clinton said it was "a little hard to imagine inviting a country that is stage-managing the Assad's regime's assault on its people."
That would depend on each government pushing the Syrian group(s) over which it has influence toward the negotiating table, Lavrov said.
A Russian diplomatic source said, "When we are told, 'Push Assad; he should do one, two, three,' we say, 'Look, we push Assad, but who will push the other side?' And here again, we're like talking to nobody, because every country is saying, 'We're not controlling the opposition; we don't know those guys.' "
But Clinton admits, almost nothing seems to be working to stop the violence.
“This is such a problematic issue, because we don’t have the unanimity of the United Nations Security Council, we don’t have the unanimity of the Arab League,” she said in an interview with Georgian Public Broadcaster in Batumi, Georgia Wednesday. “We don’t have any international recognized group that knows exactly what the right thing to do is because Syria could fall into an even more horrible state of violence with many more people at risk of being killed, injured, and displaced. We’re all trying to avoid that, but we’re also trying to stop Assad and his regime from continuing their brutal assault on their own people.”
In order for the Russian proposal to work each government would have to push the Syrian group(s) over which it has influence toward the negotiating table, Lavrov said.
Clinton said Wednesday “It’s deeply regrettable that Assad has not been pressured to step down.”
The Russian initiative is probably aimed at blunting criticism that it is solely interested in keeping al-Assad in power, regardless of the bloodshed. Nearly 10,000 people have been killed in more than a year of violence.
There is no suggestion that Russia is ready to support - yet - a change of leadership in Syria. Al-Assad is Moscow's last ally in the region. Syria buys most of its weaponry from Russia and provides it in return with its only naval base in the Mediterranean. But they may be losing patience with al-Assad.
"There is real anger toward Assad in Moscow because of the way he has handled the situation, but there is also a sense that although he may be stupid and a butcher, 'he is ours,' " said George Lopez, professor of peace studies at the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute.
"There is also confusion about his intentions: Will Assad die in a bunker, or can he shoot his way out of this? When do they turn off the flow of ammunition and military supplies?"
The Russians "are worried about losing their influence in the region, but they are also worried about backing a butcher," Lopez adds.
"They don't want to see the EU and U.S. emerge as the hero, as they did with the Libyan resistance, but nor do they want to cave in to U.S.-European preferences."
Lopez says the Russians want to keep the Syrian crisis out of the U.N. Security Council as far as possible. In that, they are joined by China, keen as always to deter any interference in the internal affairs of another state. In a joint declaration after the Russia-China summit Wednesday, the two governments declared that they "decisively speak out against attempts to resolve the Syrian crisis through external force as well as forcing, including in the U.N. Security Council, a line of changing political regimes."
Such a declaration is a line in the sand as some members of the Arab League and the United States talk about action against Syria under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which would entail global sanctions and could ultimately authorize the use of force.
Lopez said, "It is palpable at the United Nations that Russia will not accept another Libya, watching the European Union and the U.S. use sanctions as a springboard to military force. When Russia agreed to the U.N. resolution to prevent a massacre in Benghazi, they thought it was the ceiling, but it turned out to be the floor."
But there is some common ground. Both Russia and the United States say they support the Annan peace plan, though U.S. officials are skeptical that it can succeed. And they share a common goal: to prevent a sectarian meltdown in Syria that spills into neighboring states.
A Russian diplomatic source said that the positions of Russia and the United States "are getting closer, but the situation on the ground is not."
"In small details, we are getting to a more realistic understanding of what can be done and should be done, but where we differ is how we assess the situation on the ground. That's the big issue."
Even with the Houla massacre, the source said, Russia and the U.S. "disagree 100%." Washington blames it on militias supported by allies of al-Assad, but Moscow says the regime had nothing to do with it.
Now, according to one European diplomat, the question is whether they can find some common ground that would start a transition in Syria, with al-Assad stepping down as the consequence of such a transition, not as a precondition. The Russian source, who spoke on background because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the U.S. and Russia agreed that the political process in Syria can be started "without preconditioning Assad's departure" and that "this means that somehow the opposition will talk with the government."
But, the source added, "We're in this game of angels and demons, but ... we understand there are no angels there. But when we come to different capitals, in Europe and in the U.S., we hear 'No, the opposition are angels, and the other side are demons.' "
Both the White House and State Department have made positive noises this week about Russia being part of a transition plan.
"We've been very clear about our view that Russia can and should play a constructive role on Syria in bringing about the political transition in Syria that is so necessary," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday.
The European diplomat says it is critical that serious groundwork is done ahead of the G-20 summit on June 18-19, which will be the first opportunity for the newly reinstalled President Vladimir Putin (who stayed away from G-8) to broker some sort of way forward with Western powers.