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Syria

Russia and the 'war of nerves' over Syria

Russia and the US are going ahead with preparations for an international conference on Syria. Details still need to be worked out, but Assad's victories are strengthening the position of Moscow.

Geneva is set to become a new Dayton, hopes Dmitri Trenin. "Americans and Russians should get the Syrian representatives to one table and force them to come to an agreement," the head of the Moscow Carnegie Center told DW. Dayton was the US city where in 1995 the agreement to end the Balkan Wars in Bosnia and Herzegovina was finalized. But the expert is skeptical as to whether the Syria conference will bring about a similar breakthrough. "That would need a diplomatic alliance between Russia and the US." But currently, chances for that are slim, Trenin believes.

Early in May, Moscow and Washington for the first time moved somewhat closer in their positions on Syria. With the suggestion to once again attempt an international Syria conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his US counterpart John Kerry got worldwide attention. Trenin believes it was a sign that both Moscow and Washington are still hoping for a political solution to prevent the situation from escalating across the entire Mid-East region.

Major differences remain

John Kerry Sergei Lavrov (Photo: REUTERS/Yves Herman)

Kerry and Lavrov's deal for a joint Syria conference for many came as a surprise

Preparations for the conference, however, have proved difficult. Initially, it was supposed to take place in May, but now, July is mentioned as the earliest possible date for talks, according to Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Gennadi Gatilov, after consultations with the UN and Washington. For its part, Russia has successfully convinced the Damascus regime to join the talks. Whether the opposition will come, is still unclear.

Despite the common initiative, differences between Russia and the US remain. Lavrov has accused the US of "distorting" the facts in the run-up to the talks. The latest comments from the State Department claiming that the Syria conference was aimed at deposing Assad were wrong, Lavrov said. From Moscow's perspective, the talks are to be about forming a government supported both by the rebels and the regime. There is, of course, disagreement on whether or not Iran should take part in the conference as Moscow would like.

But differences also remain about the basic issues. The US says Syrian President Assad has lost all legitimacy and wants regime change in Damascus. Russia, however, still supports the Syrian strongman. With its veto in the UN Security Council, Moscow has blocked a number of resolutions to prevent a military intervention in Syria.

Russia warns of dire consequences

Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated this position at the Russia-EU summit in Yekaterinburg: "All attempts to influence the situation by a direct military intervention are bound to fail," Putin said. The Russian President warned of dire humanitarian consequences" of any such effort.

A defaced poster of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad

The US wants Assad to step down and to install a democracy

The message was mostly directed at EU states, like France and the UK, which are in favor of arms deliveries to the Syrian rebels. Such deliveries are possible starting August 1 after the EU failed to agree on prolonging the arms embargo on Syria. "I think that the Russian side is irritated and disappointed by that EU decision," explained Hans-Henning Schröder of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

But Russia had already announced new arms shipments to Syria of its own. Damascus might be getting more than than Russian fighter jets. Before that, a planned delivery of Russian anti-aircraft rockets made the headlines. The contracts were legal, but simply hadn't been implemented yet, Putin said at the summit.

But there's more than just announcements. Since June 1, Russia has stepped up its naval presence in the Mediterranean. A group of 16 battleships plans a visit in the Syrian port of Tartus, home to a Russian maritime base.

Assad's victories strengthen Russia

Russian foreign policy expert Trenin talks about a "war of nerves": "Russia is trying to cool down some hot-headed people in the West, while the EU is putting pressure on Assad," he believes. The outcome was uncertain. He pointed to other powers besides Assad, that are also pushing for a military solution; namely, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Just recently, Syrian troops managed a number of victories, like retaking the strategically important city of Qusair on the border with Lebanon. That didn't just strengthen Assad, but also Russia ahead of the conference. "The Russian position got strengthened because it seems that Assad currently has the upper hand," Schröder believes.

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