Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will ask President Bashar al-Assad for rapid reforms on a visit to Syria this week, his ministry said Sunday, as Moscow hit back at Western outrage over its UN veto.
Lavrov's visit to Damascus on Tuesday alongside the head of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) will aim to stabilise the situation in Syria by winning the implementation of "rapid" reforms, the foreign ministry said.
His trip comes days after Russia disgusted the West and Syrian opposition activists Saturday by vetoing along with China a UN Security Council resolution condemning the Assad regime's crackdown on protestors.
In a lengthy statement outlining the reasons for its veto, the foreign ministry said Russia could not accept the "ultimatum-like nature" of some of the positions in the resolution, including a demand for Assad to step down.
"We deeply regret the outcome of the work on the UN Security Council, which could have resulted in agreeing a consolidated position of the global community if our partners had shown political will," it said.
"Russia strongly intends to achieve a rapid stabilisation of the situation in Syria through the rapid implementation of much-needed democratic reforms," it added.
"It is with this aim that on the order of President Dmitry Medvedev, Sergei Lavrov and (SVR chief) Mikhail Fradkov are visiting Damascus on February 7 for a meeting with President Assad."
Russia has so far offered no clues on the role to be played by Fradkov, who heads an ultra-secret organisation that is the successor to the KGB, during the meeting.
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Shortly after the foreign ministry released its statement, the state RIA Novosti news agency ran an analysis quoting Russian experts as saying that Lavrov's visit would be aimed at persuading Assad to step down.
"It is possible that there will be an attempt to persuade the Syrian president to accept the variant proposed by the Arab League," Middle East expert Vladimir Akhmedov told the agency, referring to a plan for Assad to relinquish his job.
Moscow has repeatedly said that the resolution needed also to condemn violence by what it calls "extremist elements" in the opposition and make clear it could not be used to justify foreign military intervention in Syria.
"The authors of the draft Syria resolution, unfortunately, did not want to undertake an extra effort and come to a consensus," Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov wrote on Twitter. "The result is known," he added.
Western governments reacted with fury to the veto, with US ambassador Susan Rice saying Russia and China "remain steadfast in their willingness to sell out the Syrian people and shield a craven tyrant."
Medvedev said in October that Assad needed to undertake reforms or resign but Moscow subsequently declined to back mounting Western calls for him to quit.
Lavrov however had insisted in an interview with Australian television last week that Russia was not a friend of Assad.
"We're not a friend, we're not an ally of President Assad. We never said that President Assad remaining in power is the solution to the crisis," he said.
Analysts believe that Russia fears Assad's departure would cost Moscow hundreds of millions of dollars in arms contracts, as well as its last remaining ally in the region after Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi was ousted in the Arab Spring.