Russia's foreign ministry says Moscow's policy on Syria has not changed, despite a top diplomat's reported comment that Syria's opposition may win its battle against President Bashar al-Assad.
Authorities in Moscow say Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov has not made any statements or conducted "special interviews" with journalists over the past few days regarding Syria. This conflicted with reports in Russian news media that quoted the minister as saying Assad is increasingly losing control of his country's territory, and that an opposition victory cannot be ruled out.
The purported Bogdanov comments were viewed as the first time that Syria's powerful supporters in Moscow were acknowledging that the Assad government might be crumbling after nearly two years of battling anti-government forces.
The Russian foreign ministry said Bogdanov was referring to claims made by the "Syrian opposition and its foreign sponsors, forecasting their quick victory over the regime in Damascus." Bogdanov reputedly made the remark to a Kremlin advisory body that was discussing issues in the Middle East and North Africa.
Moscow and Beijing have repeatedly blocked efforts by the United Nations Security Council to address the Syrian crisis.
Despite the Kremlin's denial of any change in policy, analysts say Bogdanov’s comments appear to reflect a strong Russian desire to maintain influence in Syria, regardless of the Syrian president’s fate.
Bogdanov left open the possibility of Assad surviving the rebellion and staying in power. Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly shielded the Syrian leader from U.S.-led demands to quit.
Putin has vowed to oppose any U.S. and NATO intervention in Syria comparable to the Western allies' air campaign last year that helped Libyan rebels overthrow pro-Russian dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Pavel Felgenhauer, a defense analyst with Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, says Putin has taken a rigid position on Syria, with support from Russia’s military and intelligence community: “Russia is with Mr. Assad until the bloody end, and maybe even after."
But Moscow also appears to be positioning itself to have a say in Syria’s future if rebels replace Assad with a more U.S.-friendly transitional government.
Vladimir Akhmedov, a researcher at Moscow’s Institute of Oriental Studies, said he sees Bogdanov’s briefing as a hint that Russia is ready to compromise with the United States on a Syrian transition.
“In Russia, it is not a secret. Everybody understands that Mr. Assad’s days are numbered,” Akhmedov said. “Moscow wants to know who [in a post-Assad government] can preserve Russian interests in a future Syria.”
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.N. peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in Dublin last week to discuss a political solution to the Syrian conflict.
Moscow is pressing for implementation of an international Action Group agreement six months ago that called for all Syrian groups to engage the government in a Syrian-led national dialogue and transition process.
The United States has said implementing the Geneva communiqué requires Assad to step down, but Russia has rejected that interpretation.
Akhmedov said there are several fundamental factors involved in Russia's desire to maintain its influence in Syria, including a Soviet-Syrian friendship treaty signed in 1980.
That treaty led to the development of close ties between the Russian and Syrian militaries, intelligence services and political establishments.
The Russian navy has used a small logistics base in the Syrian port of Tartus for decades.
Russia also has clout in Syrian affairs thanks to the Arab state’s large number of Russian speakers — more than 100,000 before the current civil war — according to Akhmedov.
“Many Syrians, even rebel politicians and fighters, can speak Russian, because they studied in Russia or in Soviet-bloc nations such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan,” he said.
Thousands of Russians also have settled in Syria since the 1970s after marrying Syrians. Akhmedov said many of those Russian citizens were involved in building Syria’s infrastructure.
“After the rebellion, Syria will need to rebuild its ruined towns and cities, and Syrians know [from experience] that Russia can help again,” he said.
But not all Syrians may want that help.
Many Syrian opposition activists have expressed anger at Moscow’s loyalty to the Assad government. Some rebels even have warned Russians to leave Syria or face attack.
The opposition Syrian National Coalition also has turned to Western and Arab powers to seek aid for reconstruction. Germany and the United Arab Emirates have agreed to manage a fund for that purpose.
Russian journalist Felgenhauer said he believes that Russia’s future in Syria is bleak. “All this influence apparently will be lost together with the fall of Assad,” he said.
Akhmedov, the researcher, said Moscow has a reason to be hopeful.
“The Syrian mentality is a desire for balance. I do not think that Syrians want to stop all relations with Russia and put all of their eggs into the West’s basket,” he said.