A Russian envoy said Thursday he is to meet with representatives of both sides in the Syrian conflict to help broker a political settlement that would keep President Bashar Assad in power.
Mikhael Margelov, a Russian presidential envoy to the region, told journalists on the sidelines of an international policy forum in Yaroslavl that Moscow has been trying to convince both sides that the chance for dialogue is not yet lost.
He made it clear Moscow continues to support Assad, despite the Syrian government's violent crackdown on the opposition, and warned the West that the ouster of another secular leader in the Middle East could lead to unintended consequences.
Assad "is young, he is well educated, he is broad minded and we think that he has a chance for modernization in his country if the ruling class of Syria becomes more open minded, more receptive to new ideas," Margelov said.
He said he will meet with representatives of Syria's opposition on Friday in Moscow, and then on Monday with Assad's adviser Buthaina Shaaban.
Russia opposes a draft U.N. Security Council resolution backed by European nations and the United States that would impose an arms embargo and other sanctions on Syria. Moscow has introduced a rival resolution calling for Assad's government to halt its violence against protesters and expedite reforms.
On Thursday, Margelov acknowledged that Syria is an important customer for Russia's defense industry, but said Moscow was motivated by broader political interests.
Margelov referred to the ouster of a string of secular, yet authoritarian, leaders in the region as the cause of Moscow's trepidation. As an example, he described Saddam Hussein in Iraq as the "only counter balance for Iran."
Then came this year's ousters of Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, he added.
Margelov warned that Western attempts to bring democracy to the Middle East risked bringing to power radical Islamic forces, offering Algeria and the Palestinian territories as evidence.
"We should not forget that (when) moving from medieval style societies _ like many Arab states are today _ to democracy of the Western type you have to be very careful," he said.
Margelov said the people who sit in West European foreign ministries and intelligence services remind him of his former colleagues in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
"It seems like the ideas of human rights, rule of law and democracy, which sometimes in the Middle East don't have anything in common with Realpolitik, are prevailing in undertaking practical steps in the Middle East," he said.
"In the Middle East we still have very traditional societies ... and (in) dealing with traditional societies you have to learn history better."