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Is Moscow Shifting on Syria?

Although Moscow insists its official stand toward Syria hasn’t changed a bit, there are increasing signs that speak differently

Mark N. Katz

While still firmly opposed to any form of Western military intervention in Syria, there have recently been signs that Moscow is trying to dissociate itself from the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Although Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov stated on November 6,2012 in Amman, Jordan that, “we have no plans to change” Russian foreign policy toward Syria, three days later an unnamed “high-level” Russian diplomatic source told the Russian daily newspaper Izvestiathat “Assad’s departure” was one possible outcome of the ongoing conflict.

During Lavrov’s visit to Saudi Arabia on November 15, he insisted that, “Russia does not defend Assad.”  He also stated that the Syrian internal opposition should be involved in the settlement process in Syria.  In his press conference in Riyadh, he noted that, “We…advocate the unification of the Syrian opposition and we are meeting with all its representatives—of the internal and external opposition.”
Lavrov further stated on November 28 in Moscow that, “Russia’s involvement in the armed conflict is just out of the question.”
It has not just been the Russian foreign minister who has made statements such as these.  In his December 3 visit to Turkey, President Vladimir Putin noted that Russia and Turkey have differences over Syria, but insisted that, “We [the Russians] are not attorneys of Syria’s current government.”
Statements such as these from Russia’s top leadership can hardly be welcome to the Assad regime and its supporters in Syria.  Even less so was the statement reported by The Moscow Times by Russian Middle East expert Alexander Shumilin that, “Putin likely traveled to Istanbul with a serious proposal, possibly including the evacuation of Syrian President Bashar Assad to Russia.”
What explains this increasing Russian diffidence toward the Assad regime?  There are several possible factors.  One is an increasing sense in Moscow that the Assad regime is going to collapse at some point in the near future.  While Moscow may not welcome this, it will want to try to establish good working relations with a new Syrian government in order to retain Russia’s naval facilities at Tartus, arms contracts, petroleum investments and other interests in Syria.
Another factor is that the Obama Administration (I was told by a senior Defense Department official) has launched a quiet diplomatic campaign to persuade Moscow that Washington is willing to allow Russia to retain its military and economic interests in Syria after the downfall of Assad.  While such assurances are not binding on a new Syrian government, Moscow does not have to fear that the U.S. will actively attempt to exploit the downfall of Assad to expel Russia from Syria.
In addition, Moscow has grown increasingly concerned (as Russian observers have noted) about the highly negative impact that the Kremlin’s support for Assad has had on Russia’s image in Arab and other Muslim countries.  Lavrov’s November visits to Jordan and Saudi Arabia in particular appear aimed at restoring the cooperative relations that Moscow had built up with these two governments before the Syrian uprising.  Similarly, the hope expressed by Putin and Turkish President Erdogan that Russian-Turkish bilateral trade would grow from an already large $32 billion last year to an ambitious “$100 billion in a year” is an indication that they have no intention of allowing differences over Syria to undermine this profitable prospect.
These changes in the Russian approach toward Syria do not mean that Moscow is about to repudiate Assad and join with America and others in actively seeking his ouster.  What they do suggest, though, is that Moscow is now more realistically assessing the prospects for the survival of the Assad regime, and is more pragmatically preparing to pursue Russian interests in both in Syria and the broader region in the increasingly likely event that Assad does fall.

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