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Russia Hedges Its Bets with Syria

Syrian National Council representative, spokeswoman Basma Kodmani seen through a TV camera viewfinder answers a question during a news conference in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, July 10, 2012.
As Syria's main opposition coalition prepares to send a high-level delegation to Moscow, Russia appeared to signal it may eventually distance itself from President Bashar al-Assad's embattled government.
The Syrian National Council, the main opposition umbrella group in exile, is due to hold exploratory talks Wednesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at his invitation.
Russian leaders have repeatedly blocked any foreign military intervention in Syria's nearly 17-month-old uprising, and have shielded Assad from international censure. But the Kremlin recently has begun to express impatience with its key Middle East ally and is reaching out to anti-government activists in order to maintain influence after Assad's potential exit.
Still, in a sign of its ambivalent position, Russia Tuesday sent at least five warships to its strategic naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus. Interfax reported that more vessels from the Baltic Fleet, based in St. Petersburg, are preparing to join the flotilla.
The White House said it was aware of the deployment but does not see cause for concern.
Khalid Saleh, an executive SNC member and part of the delegation meeting Lavrov, told VOA "it is becoming very apparent to the Russian side that Assad's days are numbered and that's the reason they are starting this dialogue [with us]." He said the SNC intends to probe Russian officials on what he called the post-Assad transition. "We'll see Russia's stance on that and if they have specifics they want to put forward," Saleh said of Wednesday's talks.
While Russia is now willing to speak with both sides in the Syrian conflict, its motives for doing so are markedly different from those of Western powers.
David Satter, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, told VOA Russia is fighting to maintain regional influence in the one Middle Eastern country "that can be regarded as a Russian client state...and where they have a [naval] base." He said the Kremlin is preparing for the possibility of abandoning Assad if he loses power or if it becomes clear he cannot hold onto it.
With the conflict on the brink of civil war - the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights puts the death toll at more than 17,000 people - Assad's fate will be determined by the balance of power within the country. Recent developments on the ground do not appear to bode well for the Syrian leader and have emboldened anti-government fighters led by the Free Syrian Army.
The SNC's Saleh said pro-Assad forces are losing control over many parts of the country, and that the number of defections "has increased tremendously" of late. He said government troops have surrounded the eastern city of Deir Ezzor for the past 18 days but are unable to enter the town. "Some 40 percent of the army there has defected," Saleh said, putting the morale of pro-Assad forces at "a historical low."
VOA cannot confirm events on the ground in Syria because the government severely restricts access for international journalists.
On Monday, an official from Russia's state arms exporter said Moscow will halt shipments of new weapons to the Syrian government, while continuing to honor existing military contracts. U.S. and allied officials acknowledge Syrian rebels have been receiving arms supplies from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirate of Qatar.
Satter said arms transfers in a civil conflict, while significant, are not decisive, noting that "refurbished helicopters from Russia may be insufficient to turn the tide of battle."
Saleh points to recent FSA gains as "the reason the Russians want to talk after refusing to do so for many months. I hope we'll see a real change from the Russians. We'll see what they have to offer tomorrow."
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    Mark Snowiss

    Mark Snowiss is a Washington D.C.-based multimedia reporter.  He has written and edited for various media outlets including Pacifica and NPR affiliates in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @msnowiss and on Google Plus

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