Russia "could soften" Syria stance after poll

BEIRUT Tue Feb 28, 2012 11:16am GMT

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Moscow may soften its opposition to coordinated international action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after Russia holds its presidential election next week, a leading Lebanese politician has said.

International efforts to stop Assad's violent crackdown on protests have been deadlocked after Russia and China vetoed an Arab and Western-backed draft U.N. resolution which would have paved the way for the Syrian ruler to step aside.

But Fouad Siniora, a leading Sunni Muslim politician and former prime minister, said Moscow's position had been influenced by domestic politics, with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin talking tough ahead of a March 4 election.

"The position (where) I believe there might be a chance for some sort of change is the Russian position - the Russian and the Chinese," Siniora told Reuters in an interview.

"The Syrian problem became a domestic issue in Russia. It is part of the election campaign ... (Syrian) blood is being used as a way of trading between Russia and the West," he said, adding that Russia might be "ready to discuss business in a more pragmatic way" after the vote.

Unlike Russia, which has a naval base on the Syrian coast and sells arms to Damascus, China has little commercial interest in shielding Assad from criticism, Siniora said.

Siniora said China had balked at U.N. condemnation of Assad because of concerns over potential criticism of its own domestic record, including in Tibet. But in the long term he said it was not in Beijing's interest to side with the Syrian leader.

"They have lots of investments and interests in the Arab world. They cannot continue taking such a position," he said.

Siniora said the confrontation inside Syria, which has killed thousands of people, had reached a point of no return because Assad's opponents would not stop until he was forced out. The authorities had waited too long to implement reforms, he added.

HIGH STAKES

Still bearing the scars from their own 1975-1990 civil war, Lebanese politicians have been looking anxiously at the violence in neighbouring Syria, which has pitted largely Sunni Muslim protesters against a president from the minority Alawite sect.

But despite tensions and public recriminations between Sunni leaders -- who largely support the uprising in Syria -- and the powerful Shi'ite group Hezbollah which backs Assad, Siniora said Lebanon's parties would seek to contain their differences.

"The stakes are too high. Those trying to capitalise on some difference between the Sunnis and Shi'ites - it is not going to bear fruit," he said.

Domestic divisions in Lebanon have traditionally been exploited by regional powers, with Iran supporting Hezbollah and Saudi Arabia backing the country's Sunni Muslim population.

Those regional rivalries are now being played out in Syria, where Tehran is backing Assad and Saudi Arabia declared last week it would support arming rebels seeking his overthrow.

"It is not in the interests of the Iranian regime to continue hammering on having Lebanon and Syria as their client countries," Siniora said.

"This is not a sustainable relationship and this will lead towards furthering the confrontation in the region."

(Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

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