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As Syria convulses, a rapidly shifting calculus for Russia

Syrian tanks are seen in Bab Amro near the city of Homs Feb. 12, 2012.


For Russia, clinging to the vestiges of superpower status, Syria matters.

Syria is Russia's best friend, most reliable ally and by far its biggest arms buyer in the Middle East. It's also home to Russia's only naval base outside the former Soviet Union. So it was no great surprise that Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning Syria.

But unwavering support as the carnage worsens, the international outcry grows and ever more gruesome evidence of wanton killing emerges puts Moscow in a tough spot.

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Hence, the first sign that Russia wants to engineer an end to the crisis, rather than continue to single-mindedly back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who visited Damascus last week, now says Russia, "together with other permanent members of the UN Security Council, is ready to promote … dialogue and an agreement on regional security."

Pressure for the great powers – but especially Moscow – to act intensified on Monday after UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay painted a chilling account. "The Syrian army has shelled densely populated neighbourhoods of Homs in what appears to be an indiscriminate attack on civilian areas," she told the 193-nation General Assembly, using words that echo the language of war-crimes indictments.

"The longer the international community fails to take action, the more the civilian population will suffer from countless atrocities against them," Ms. Pillay said.

More than the lives of Syria's bloodied but unbowed civilians is at stake. So, too, is Russia's place in the world.

For Vladimir Putin, who is seeking another six-year stint in the Kremlin as Russia's president, his country's future role in Syria likely matters far more than the fate of Mr. al-Assad. Mr. Putin wants to reassert Russian greatness, which includes projecting power in the Middle East and not allowing others – especially the United States – unrivalled primacy in one of the world's most vital regions.

Just as the United States was willing to jettison Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, a loyal friend and reliable ally for decades, when it suddenly suited American interests, so Russia's steadfast support of Mr. al-Assad may quickly erode.

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Last spring, as it became clear to everyone, save perhaps Mr. Mubarak, that his rule was over, the Obama administration greased the skids for his departure. The U.S. President said publicly that it was time for him to step down. More importantly, a chorus of quiet calls from thousands of U.S. military officers who had trained and served with their Egyptian counterparts urged the army to back the pro-democracy uprising.

The Egyptian drama is still unfolding. But for now at least, the Obama administration has succeeded in safeguarding U.S. interests and retaining Egypt as an ally even as it dumped Mr. Mubarak

Russia has similar leverage. For generations, Syrian fighter pilots have flown MiG warplanes, armoured-corps commanders have fought in Russian tanks and most of the senior military – including Hafez al-Assad, the current president's father who seized power in 1971 – honed their skills alongside Russians.

At the United Nations, the General Assembly will this week consider a non-binding resolution condemning Syria. Unlike the Security Council, where any of the five permanent members – Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States – can block a resolution, no nation holds a veto in the 193-nation General Assembly.

An overwhelming majority vote, moreover, would put intense pressure on Russia and the other major powers to intervene, or at least jointly condemn the Syrian brutality.

"What is happening in Syria leaves no doubt that it is not ethnic or sectarian war or urban warfare," said Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal. "It is a campaign of mass cleansing to punish the Syrian people and enforce the regime's authority."

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Mr. al-Assad may not fancy exile in the Crimea but his chances of crushing the uprising are becoming increasingly remote. Nor do the alternatives imposed on other toppled rulers offer much appeal. Mr. Mubarak is on trial for his life in Cairo. Colonel Moammar Gadhafi was killed after being beaten and humiliated. Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh is in forced exile, being treated for burns after narrowly surviving a rocket-propelled grenade attack.

It is not yet clear that Moscow has decided that Mr. al-Assad must go. Unlike the very public calls made by Mr. Obama that doomed Mr. Mubarak, any Russian-orchestrated exit for the Syrian dictator would likely be more clandestine.

In the meantime, the risks of even greater catastrophe grow, including, perhaps, a full-blown civil war in strategically located Syria, surrounded by Israel, Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan. A Syrian civil war could quickly evolve into a grim sectarian conflict, pitting Kurds and Sunni Arabs against each other and Mr. al-Assad's ruling Alawite minority.

Moscow says it will consider the call by the 22-nation Arab League for a joint Arab-UN peacekeeping force but insists there must be "peace" first.

Any call for an international peacekeeping force seems unlikely to attract much support among Western nations, however. The prospect of sending troops into another violence-racked Muslim nation – even if armed only with a peacekeeping mandate – will be unwelcome in most Western capitals where governments are busy trying to extricate their soldiers from Afghanistan.

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