By William Maclean
LONDON (Reuters) - As veteran mediator Kofi Annan prepares to visit Damascus to try to rein in Syria's turmoil, he could be forgiven for thinking his time would be far more usefully spent in Moscow, the Arab state's old strategic ally.
Analysts say Russia is the one outside power that could determine whether the March 10 mission by the joint UN-Arab League special envoy prevents a fragmented global response from degenerating into a violent scramble for regional supremacy.
The United Nations says more than 7,500 people have been killed in a nearly year-old crackdown on demonstrators against President Bashar al-Assad who drew inspiration from other "Arab Spring" revolts across the Middle East and North Africa.
For many, Syria's internal conflict is turning into a proxy struggle between rival international groupings, between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims in the Middle East and, globally, along Cold War lines between democracies and authoritarian leaders.
The question for many, and perhaps also for Annan, a former U.N. Secretary-General, is whether president-elect Vladimir Putin will be ready to cut political support for his counterpart Bashar al-Assad in return for a deal that somehow shores up Moscow's long-term influence with its closest Arab ally.
Lamenting an international response it said veered from the ineffectual to the inflammatory, the International Crisis Group (ICG) suggested that Annan's best hope lay in enlisting Russian support for a negotiated, orderly transition of power that preserved the integrity of Syrian state institutions.
"Annan faces very long odds," a March 5 ICG note said, noting disarray among Assad's numerous foreign foes had allowed the government to live "in denial" about the depth of the crisis. But it suggested Russia might be persuaded to shift position, so as to convince Damascus the balance of power was tilting against it and moves on a transition should now start.
"For the regime, Moscow is key. Losing it would mean losing a significant contributing factor to internal cohesion - the perception that, deep-down, the international community remains ambivalent at the prospect of real political change," it wrote.
If Annan can persuade Russia to back a transitional plan, said the ICG, "the regime would be confronted with the choice of either agreeing to negotiate in good faith or facing near-total isolation through loss of a key ally."
There is deep skepticism about whether Putin would even remotely contemplate a policy switch that could destabilize an alliance that dates back to the Cold War and provides Russia with its only military facility outside the former Soviet Union.
Smarting from the Libya and Ivory Coast crises in 2011 that saw U.N. Security Council-authorized military intervention, Putin's top priority is to show that he will defy Western efforts to impose political change on sovereign states in regions of big power competition, analysts say.
And skeptics note that the Russian government has billions of dollars worth of contracts for Russian arms and point to Moscow's veto of a resolution last month against Damascus in the U.N. Security Council.
But since imposing the veto, Russia has said it is open to further efforts to use Security Council influence to halt the violence and has also stepped up efforts to engage with Arab states, indicating it wants a strong hand in diplomacy on Syria.
Russia and China joined other Security Council powers on March 1 in issuing a rare rebuke of Damascus for failing to grant the U.N. humanitarian chief access to Syrian conflict zones.
There is little doubt among close observers of Syria's minority Alawite political establishment that Russia retains the clout to move its ally some way towards a negotiated solution and that the Kremlin is keenly aware that its international prestige as a diplomatic presence is at stake.
And with Russia's March 4 presidential elections complete, the victorious Putin is expected to be able to turn his attention to foreign policy priorities such as Syria.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters: "It remains to be seen how the Russians will play this going forward ... We hope that their sense of humanity and compassion will encourage them to join us in pressing the Assad regime to silence its guns."
"We're hoping for some fresh attention to the tragedy in Syria now that the elections have passed."
The ICG noted Moscow's priorities appeared to be less about upholding the existing Syrian leadership than ensuring some institutional continuity and preserving the state apparatus.
In an interview with several foreign newspapers published on March 2, Putin said Russia has no special relationship with Assad and Syrians should decide who should rule their country.
"When Bashar al-Assad came to power he visited London and other European capitals first," Putin said. "We don't have a special relationship with Syria. We only have interests in the conflict being resolved."
Dmitri Trenin, Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, told Reuters Putin did not regard Assad as an ally, was not beholden to him in any way, and would be prepared to talk to Annan about ways of finding a solution to the crisis.
Yet while Putin "would not shed any tears" if Assad was dumped as part of an process agreed by Syrians themselves, Trenin said, as a matter of principle Putin would not allow Russia to join any effort to unseat a foreign head of state.
Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, wrote in a February 29 commentary that Moscow should move beyond saving "a doomed regime" to saving Syria from civil war.
It could do this by becoming the architect of a positive and stable political transition, he wrote.
"A 'Russian Plan' could have elements of other recent transitions in the Arab world. As the West did in Tunisia and Egypt, Russia could use its influence in Syria to encourage a transition without a collapse of state institutions and national order; and as Saudi Arabia and others did in Yemen, it could encourage this transition while offering an exit strategy for the ruling family and clique."
James Sherr, Senior Fellow in the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House think-tank, suggested caution was necessary in assessing the Kremlin's position on Syria.
"Even if Russia had real influence over Assad and could push him into real change they wouldn't do it. They would not back a process that would move his regime out of power and bring in unknown forces," he told Reuters.
But Sherr suggested Moscow "might be amenable" to Assad being removed from office if it assessed he could be replaced with a figurehead able to preserve the ruling system.
"There is one constant Russian interest here, which is to be seen as an indispensable participant in a solution."