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Syria on agenda as EU leaders meet with Russia's Putin

June 4, 2012 |  4:03 am

European leaders are expected to press the contentious issue of Syria at a European Union-Russian summit Monday in St. Petersburg

This post has been updated. See the note below for details.

BEIRUT -- European leaders are expected to press the contentious issue of Syria at a European Union-Russian summit Monday in St. Petersburg, but few believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin will agree to ramp up pressure on the Syrian government.

Putin has made it clear that Moscow opposes more forceful United Nations Security Council action against Syrian President Bashar Assad. A "Libya scenario" of U.N.-authorized international intervention in Syria is off the table, the Russians have insisted.

"What is happening in Libya?" Putin asked last week after talks with French President Francois Hollande in Paris. "What is happening in Iraq? Has it become safer there?"

The Russian view is that Western-led interventions leading to regime change, such as those that ousted Moammar Kadafi in Libya and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, have heightened regional instability and cost Moscow reliable allies in its global rivalry with Washington.

"We are not for Bashar Assad or for his opponents," Putin insisted last week. "We want to arrive at a situation where the violence is ended and the possibility of a civil war is completely avoided."

But analysts say the practical effect of Russia's policies is to throw a lifeline to Assad, who is facing an almost 15-month-long rebellion that has cost more than 10,000 lives. It remains to be seen whether Moscow will work behind the scenes to pressure Assad, a longtime ally, to comply with a Russian-backed, U.N.-brokered peace plan for Syria.

A "frustrated" Kofi Annan, the U.N. special envoy for Syria, on Saturday urged Assad to take "bold and visible steps immediately to radically change his military posture and honor his commitment to withdraw heavy weapons and cease all violence."

But Assad, in a nationally televised speech on Sunday, gave no indication of changing course and repeated charges that the revolt against his rule stemmed from a "foreign conspiracy."

The United States and many of its Arab and other allies have called for Assad to step down. On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton -- who has warned that Russia's stance may drive Syria toward civil war, rather than prevent it -- said a "political transition" in Syria was essential.

"Assad's departure does not have to be a precondition," Clinton said in Stockholm, "but it should be an outcome."

[Updated 9:10 a.m. June 4: After the summit, European Council president Herman Van Rompuy said they had "divergent assessments" of the situation in Syria, but agreed the existing peace plan was the best way to avoid a civil war, the BBC reported.]

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-- Patrick J. McDonnell

Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, left, and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy take part in a Russia-EU summit. Credit: Kirill Kudryavtsev / Getty Images

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