Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov speaks to the media in Yerevan, on April 2. — Photo AFP

MOSCOW: Russia stepped up its backing of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday by warning the West that the rebels would never be able to defeat his army even if “armed to the teeth.”

The stark declaration marked a change in tone for Moscow amid earlier signs of it giving up support for a regime that relies on Russia for its weapons and in return offers the Kremlin diplomatic sway in the region.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the course now being taken by Western and some Arab nations was inciting the armed opposition to keep fighting despite a new peace plan from international envoy Kofi Annan.

“It is clear as day that even if the Syrian opposition is armed to the teeth, it will not be able to defeat the government's army,” Interfax quoted Lavrov as saying while on a visit to the ex-Soviet nation of Azerbaijan.

“Instead, there will be carnage that lasts many, many years — mutual destruction.” Lavrov said the “Friends of Syria” meeting held last weekend in Istanbul by the opposition's supporters undermined Annan's efforts by recognising the Syrian National Council (SNC) as a “legitimate representative” of all Syrians.

“If besides supporting Kofi Annan's plan (nations) also hold 'Friends of Syria' meetings in Istanbul — ones that are aimed at ensuring that the opposition does not agree to negotiations — this only undermines efforts to stop the violence,” Lavrov said.

Analysts said Lavrov appeared to be voicing the limits to which Russia was ready to side with efforts to orchestrate a transition of power that could end a year of violence the United Nations says has claimed more than 9,000 lives.

Russia has backed Annan's peace plan and urged Assad to keep his commitment to withdraw the army from urban areas by April 10.

But it has also stressed the importance of the rebels putting down their arms within 48 hours of the deadline — a move diplomats said is included in Annan's initiative.

“Syria is the last place where Russia can put its foot down and its loss would mean the complete end of the great Soviet era,” said Carnegie Moscow Centre analyst Alexei Malashenko.

Others said Russia fears that the “Friends of Syria” meetings were gaining in importance and threatening to sideline Moscow's future role.

“We now see that we are being forgotten and shunted aside,” said Viktor Kremenyuk of the USA-Canada Institute.

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