Russia needs to understand that the conflict in Syria is not a dispute between the opposition and regime but a revolution, the chief of the main exiled opposition group said in Moscow on Wednesday.
“The events in Syria are not disagreements between the opposition and the government but a revolution,” Syrian National Council (SNC) chief Abdul Basset Sayda told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, comparing the events in his country to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The SNC is based in Turkey and openly backed by Western and Arab states.
“We have not seen a development in the Russian position. I was here one year ago and the position has not changed,” Burhan Ghalioun, SNC executive committee member and its former chief, told reporters after the meeting.
However in his opening remarks, Lavrov offered no hope of breakthrough in disagreements between Moscow and the Syrian opposition, which has been scathing of the Russian position in the Syrian crisis.
“Sometimes your organization has questions about what we are doing and we want to clear up these questions today so that there are no doubts,” Lavrov said.
He added that Russia wanted to understand in the talks if there are “prospects” of the opposition groups uniting and joining a platform for dialogue with the Syrian government.
Lavrov said Moscow’s policy was based on the Annan plan, which many commentators believe to be in tatters with no sign of an end to the violence which the exiled opposition says has left over 17,000 people dead.
Russia supports “the necessity of moving to a dialogue involving the government and all opposition groups where Syrians can determine the fate of their country, starting by agreeing the parameters and terms of a transitional process,” Lavrov said.
Russia has seen itself cast as the last protector of an Arab ally it buttressed in the Soviet era and has in the past year rejected two rounds of U.N. Security Council sanctions as well as calls for the use of force.
But Moscow is increasingly keen to be viewed as a nation crusading for the supremacy of international principles and self-determination rather than the global rule of powers such as the United States.
On Tuesday Moscow proposed a U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria that would extend the U.N. mission in the conflict-stricken country without any threat of sanctions, diplomats said.
The resolution was sent to the council's other 14 members ahead of a briefing on Wednesday by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan on efforts to revive his peace plan, Russia’s deputy U.N. envoy Igor Pankin told reporters, according to AFP.
Russia’s move is the opening round in a potentially tense diplomatic battle at the Security Council that must decide the future of the U.N. observer mission in Syria by July 20.
Russia is the main ally of President Bashar al-Assad and has fiercely resisted international action against the Damascus government. The United States and European powers want sanctions against Assad over the conflict, in which activists say more than 17,000 people have died.
Russia has repeatedly said that the fate of Assad is up to the Syrian people and has defied calls by the West and the SNC to urge the Syrian president to step down.
“We are not holding on to specific personalities. This is not even an issue for us,” Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said on the eve of the visit.
Bogdanov added: “We try to move the Syrian opposition figures toward realistic and constructive positions that can help end the bloodshed.”
The SNC meanwhile signaled it may try to use the gentle art of persuasion rather than present Russia's top diplomats with a laundry list of complaints that have accumulated since fighting first flared in March 2011.
“We hope that they will try to understand and help us,” said SNC spokeswoman Bassma Kodmani.
“Russia is one of the most important states for Syria. It plays an important role that we hope can help us turn the page on the old regime.”
The soft tone masks outrage among SNC members and various states at Russia’s decision to continue supplying Assad with military hardware even as the death toll surpasses 17,000 lives.
Russia says the arms can only help protect Syria’s borders and are perfectly legal. It has also pledged not to send any of its latest technology even as it continues to fulfill orders placed by Assad before the crisis began.
But the SNC is expected to use the same argument used on Russia by rebels who came to Moscow for talks from Libya one year ago -- that regimes fall and new forces that replace them remember their foreign friends in times of need.
“We want to explain that the dictatorial regime that ruled Syria for more than 40 years has reached its end,” Sayda said this week.
Moscow will be particularly keen to look after its lone naval port outside the ex-Soviet Union -- a center in Tartus that lets Russia patrol the volatile region’s shores -- as well as numerous commercial and diplomatic contacts.
The SNC talks come two days after Moscow received the more moderate Syrian intellectual and opposition member Michel Kilo in what has emerged as one of its most active burst of contacts with Assad's formal enemies.
Kilo said he had told the Russians that he could no longer support holding a dialogue with Assad because the fighting had gone too far.