News / Middle East

Russia Looks Ahead to a Post-Assad Syria

FILE - In this Monday, July 11, 2011 file photo from left : European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov and Russian Ambassador Sergei Yakovlev, attend a dinner at the State Department in Washington.FILE - In this Monday, July 11, 2011 file photo from left : European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov and Russian Ambassador Sergei Yakovlev, attend a dinner at the State Department in Washington.
FILE - In this Monday, July 11, 2011 file photo from left : European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov and Russian Ambassador Sergei Yakovlev, attend a dinner at the State Department in Washington.
FILE - In this Monday, July 11, 2011 file photo from left : European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov and Russian Ambassador Sergei Yakovlev, attend a dinner at the State Department in Washington.
Cecily Hilleary
Russia backtracked Friday on comments about Syria made by a key official only a day earlier. 

On Thursday, Russia's state-run RIA news agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov as saying that an opposition victory over the Assad regime could not be “ruled out."  Friday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said that Russia’s Syria policy remains unchanged.

''There has not been any deviation from our principle line on Syrian affairs, and nor will there be in the future,” Lukashevich said.  “Our only goal is to end the violence in Syria as quickly as possible, to start a dialogue between the Syrians, between the government and the opposition, and to work out a formula for advancing a political process in the future.”

Analysts have been left guessing at Moscow’s intentions.  Was it simply a case of mixed signals between a diplomat and his head office? Or were Bogdanov’s comments a signal to the Syrian opposition that Russia is ready to shift its policy?  Or could they have been a signal to the U.S. and Turkey that Russia is ready to take a more active role in achieving a diplomatic solution to the Syria crisis?

A grain of salt

Joseph Olmert, a Syria expert and adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina, says, Bogdanov’s comments -- along with the Foreign Ministry’s subsequent clarification – were no accident.  He says the Russians are likely very pleased with themselves today, because they have positioned itself back in “the diplomatic game” over Syria and Assad’s fate.
“Even clumsy Russian explanations that the statement was taken out of context should be taken with a grain of salt," Olmert said.

“In a system of government like Russia's, there is a ‘good and bad cop’ technique at play,” he continued. “What Bogdanov said indicates the Russians’ attempt to position themselves in line for talks about the future of Syria, post-Bashar.”

Olmert says that Moscow under Vladimir Putin is pragmatic and is clearly  acknowledging the reality of the situation on the ground.

“The Russians never intended to fight for Bashar Al-Assad, and on occasions in the past they have actually distanced from him,” he said. 

Olmert believes Russia’s policy all along has been to demonstrate, as it did with regard to Iran, that Moscow has a role to play and does not want to see any of what Olmert calls a “one-sided pax Americana” take place.

“I do not rule out a granting of safe passage to Bashar and his immediate family to Moscow,” Olmert said. “And surely, the Russians will seek to protect their military installations in Syria, particularly in Tartus.” 

Moscow has only one naval presence in the Mediterranean -- the naval supply base at Tartus, which Russia says has more symbolic than strategic value.

Too Little Too Late?

Whatever Russia does, how will the Syrian opposition feel about Moscow if Assad falls and it takes power?

Radwan Ziadeh, spokesperson for the Syrian National Council and a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in Washington, D.C., believes that it will be very difficult for any future Syrian government to deal with the Russians.

“We have many opposition figures and activists inside Syria who believe that Russia should be held accountable for what happened to the Syrian people.  The historical relationship between Russia and Syria will come to an end,” he said.

Ziadeh says he has visited Moscow for talks on two occasions and repeated this message many times. 

“But it looks as if they don’t care," he said. "Now that the opposition is very close to Damascus, it isn’t clear if their opinion is still the same or there has been a change in their position.”

Jeffrey Mankoff is deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York City.  He says Russia has been trying to keep the lines of communication open with the Syrian opposition. 

“But it’s been pretty clear that Russia is probably the most important and steadfast foreign supporter of Assad, apart from countries like Iran,” Mankoff said.

In fact, Mankoff believes that Russia has handled the entire “Arab Spring phenomenon” badly, also damaging relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. 

“So I think the Russians are now trying to make the best of what is clearly for them a bad situation,” he said.

At the end of the day, Mankoff does not rule out the possibility that Moscow will be able to strike a deal with a post-Assad government to protecting Russia’s vital interests in Syria.

But in terms of actually being able to influence and shape the post-Assad government, Mankoff thinks Russia has most certainly missed the boat.


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Comment Sorting
by: ***Prophecy*** from: The US
December 16, 2012 6:10 AM
“Putin will lose Syria and Iran forever, and Vietnamese Communists will also lose Putin eternally”.

by: Anonymous
December 15, 2012 7:56 PM
As demonstrated today the Russian Government treats its civillians no different than Assad does. Arrest anyone who opposes the current government, yea that's the thinking, arrest them if they don't like you.... There is no democracy in Russia.

by: Grin Olsson from: USA
December 15, 2012 4:54 AM
Russia has nothing to do with the Syrian government problem with Sunnis. The problem began when the Ottoman Empire was split up in World War 1. To deprive the Sunni and Sunni Wahhabi of any political clout in post WW1, France and Britain created secular governments over large swaths of Sunnis. To accomplish this minority religions came into government. And, that is Syria's problem in that with democratic considerations, surely the Sunni ideology was rule the region and eradicate secular gains on freedom and protection of minority religions.

To be honest, it is my opinion, the United States is on the wrong side and should support Russia and the Syrian government.

by: grasspress from: western united states
December 15, 2012 12:18 AM
the russians are going to regret not cooperating with the west to help solve the syrian crisis. it now looks like the syrian citizens are going to oust assad and his henchmen and then the russians will be next and they will lose their precious sea base and all their influence in the area. they could have maintained their status as a friend of syria if they had tried more diligently to persuade assad to initiate reforms and accept the inevitable. and when they have to use force themselves to regain their sea base they will be accused of doing exactly what they have accused the west of doing and they will have to use the same explanations that assad is using. they will become russians again.

by: Anonymous
December 14, 2012 9:52 PM
Russia has proven by inaction to get Assad out of power has lead to the many many thousands of people in Syria killed. Russian Government cared nothing about the Syrian people, but instead about arming a terrorist named Assad. It's too little too late Putin, you cared NOTHING about the Syrian people. Hopefully the people of Syria unite and kick Russian government off their soil for the future. It's too late to play stupid Putin... As for the Syrians they will win this war, it is Assad against an entire country, Assad will not win.

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