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Russia's Syria Policy Planners Look for 'Plan B'

  • James Brooke

U.S. State Secretary Hillary Clinton listens during a news conference in Riga, Latvia June 28, 2012.

U.S. State Secretary Hillary Clinton listens during a news conference in Riga, Latvia June 28, 2012.

MOSCOW — On the eve of Saturday's international meeting in Geneva on the future of Syria, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discussed Syria with her Russian counterpart in a meeting Friday in St. Petersburg.

Before the meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov distanced himself from a draft United Nations resolution that signaled peace will only come to Syria if President Bashar al-Assad steps down.

He says a Syrian solution can only be made by Syrians.

That said, Russia will participate in the Syria conference Saturday - a meeting that will have no Syrian participants.

Analysts here say the Kremlin is starting to think that Mr. Assad may not survive as president much longer. They say Russia is working on "Plan B." This would be a negotiated political solution that would include members of the Assad government, but not President Assad.

"The Russians now realize that it would be very difficult, if possible at all, to keep Bashar al-Assad in power, even if he is ready to make serious concessions to the opposition," Andrei Kortunov, president of the New Eurasia Foundation, a non-profit group in Moscow.

Kortunov and other analysts say Russian demands would include safety for the Syrian president and his family, participation of existing government figures in a coalition government, and protection for Syrian minorities such as Christians, Armenians and Circassians - descendants of a group deported from Czarist Russia in the 1860s.

Russia is often seen as President Assad's closest big-power ally. Moscow's state-controlled television and newspapers routinely relay the official line of Damascus, saying that the 16-month-old uprising is the work of foreign powers and "terrorists."

For 40 years, the Kremlin has maintained close ties with the Assad family. Today, Russia is Syria's biggest military supplier and maintains a naval station on Syria's Mediterranean coast. Russia is completing contracts to modernize 20 attack helicopters and 100 Soviet era tanks.

Ruslan Aliyev, an analyst with the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow research organization close to Russia's defense industry, says the ties with Damascus are often more emotional than rational.

He says Syria is not a major market for Russian arms sales "Syria is not a principle customer for Russia. It's not the most be weapons' market in the world, or in the region for that matter," Aliyev said in an interview.

"In regards to the Naval base, strictly speaking, it's not really a base at all. It's a small point on the global map where Russian ships can occasionally stop off to get food
and water supplies, and where ships can have minor repairs."

He and other analysts here say Russia main interest is to keep Syria from disintegrating into a failed state where Islamic radicalism would thrive.

Mark Galeotti, chairman of New York University's Center for Global Affairs, agrees.

"It's important to stress that it's not that Russia has some particular enthusiasm for the Assad regime," said Galeotti, a Russia expert. "They are desperate to avoid chaos in the area. And their experience is that, on the whole, Western experiments and regime
change have always led to, not just chaos, but the rise of Islamist governments that frankly would be very bad news for Moscow."

Moscow has been battling Islamic radicalism for more than three decades - since the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. A central thrust of Kremlin policy has been to avoid - or at least contain - this radicalism.

Galeotti and others say Russia's goal in Syria is to move from the current state of civil war to a moderate, tolerant Sunni regime.

"They would much rather see some stable regime," he said Friday. "I think in this respect, the Russians would be very happy to broker some kind of deal, which would see maybe the Assad family depart from Syria. "

The Kremlin's challenge will be to get from here to there - without being seen as following Washington's lead.

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