Shaun Walker: How far can Syria go before Moscow withdraws support?

As long as Assad knows he can count on Russia's support he will continueto act with impunity

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Asked yesterday whether the Houla massacre should be the moment when Russia finally drops its support for the Assad regime, a visibly irate Sergei Lavrov snapped back that Moscow had never supported Bashar al-Assad. "We do not support the Syrian government," Mr Lavrov said. "We support the plan of Kofi Annan."

Optimists may find some hope for a future consensus in these words, but that would be ignoring the tone of Mr Lavrov's remarks. He criticised the West for "playing geopolitical games" and said he was "sceptical" about supposed human-rights concerns, which he feels mask plans for regime change. The talks with William Hague were "frank and honest", the British Foreign Secretary said – diplomatic code for stormy and without agreement.

The statement at the UN Security Council to which Russia signed up is progress, as is the information from sources in Washington that Russia may be considering a "Yemen scenario" whereby Mr Assad is eased out of Syria. Mr Lavrov did not comment on these rumours yesterday, but did say that Moscow was putting pressure on Damascus "daily" to adhere to Mr Annan's plan. Still, he has been peddling that line for several months now.

As long as Mr Assad knows he can count on Russia's support, he can act with impunity. We do not know what exactly Moscow is saying to Mr Assad privately and it may be that Russia's line behind closed doors is very different to what Mr Lavrov said publicly yesterday and Mr Assad has been warned that further atrocities will result in Russia being forced to abandon its ally, perhaps the only kind of pressure that will work. The tone of Mr Lavrov's remarks hardly point to a consensus any time soon.

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