What does Russia want?
Russia's continued support for the Syrian regime has been leading some Western countries to threaten military intervention even without UN Security Council authorisation, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus
Some 15 months after the beginning of the popular uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, Russia has not budged in its support for the regime, making it an obstacle to finding a solution for the Syrian crisis in the eyes of many members of the international community and pushing Syria closer to civil war.
Political and economic sanctions against Syria over the past year have failed to change the regime's direction or force it to end its violent crackdown against the uprising that has so far led to the deaths of some 15,000 people.
However, Syria is at the centre of a struggle for influence between the US and the West, on the one hand, and Russia, on the other, with Moscow seeing its support for the Syrian regime as an opportunity to revive former Soviet glory and preserve its last important ally in the Arab world.
After talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Russia did not support any particular faction in Syria, reiterating Moscow's support of efforts by UN and Arab League envoy Kofi Anan to find a political solution to the crisis.
However, this would "require patience", Putin said. For many observers, Russia's words have long ceased to match its actions, and many see it as a strong supporter of the Syrian regime.
Observers believe that Moscow wants to be able to dictate a solution to the Syrian crisis, or at least to play a key role in resolving it. It would like to be the patron of any alternative regime in Damascus, observers say, and it would maybe even like to be able to use the Syrian crisis in order to restore its role as a superpower, forcing recognition from the US and NATO of its stature and strategic foothold in the region.
As a result, Russia continues to play a key role in the Syrian crisis, and it has twice used its veto power to block UN Security Council resolutions condemning the brutal crackdown on the protests in Syria.
Moscow has long insisted that the only solution is dialogue with the incumbent regime and not Arab and international sanctions. At the same time, it continues to send weapons to its Syrian ally.
The Syrian opposition says that Russia, which publicly rejects foreign intervention in Syria, is itself heavily interfering in the crisis by arming the regime and advocating its remaining in power despite the international pressures.
The opposition has also criticised comments made by the Russian minister of the interior two weeks ago, when he declared that Russia "would never accept" Sunni rule in Syria.
At the beginning of the crisis, Russia defended its arms sales to the Syrian regime by arguing that government forces had to be able to act against the armed opposition, which was supplied by weapons from abroad.
However, Putin recently changed the Russian rationale when he said that Moscow was arming the regime with weapons, but that these were not to be used in civil conflicts. Nevertheless, international reports indicate that Russia has sent equipment to Syria that has been used to suppress the protests, most recently a Russian shipment of heavy weapons sent last week to the Syrian port of Tartous.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has stated that arms sales between Russia and Syria have taken place regularly during the past year, strengthening the Al-Assad regime. Russia's actions could plunge the country into civil war, she warned.
A few days ago, 41 countries voted for a UN Human Rights Council resolution condemning the massacre in Hawla, in which nearly 50 children were killed, and demanding an international investigation into the crime.
Only Russia, China and Cuba opposed the resolution, shocking the Syrian opposition. "Russia has become part of the Syrian problem, not part of the solution," Borhan Ghalyoun, chair of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), said.
Analysts had expected the massacre to cause Russia to abandon its closest ally in the Middle East, but Moscow disappointed the West when it adopted the official viewpoint of the Syrian regime, which has accused unknown "armed groups" and "mercenaries" of carrying out the massacre. Russia further warned against the West's trying to use the massacre as a pretext for military intervention in Syria.
While the decision to expel Syrian ambassadors from western capitals, and before that from Arab capitals, was well received on the domestic, Arab and international fronts, it was not well received in Moscow.
Some Western states fear that Russian support of the Syrian regime could lead to civil war in Syria, Clinton warning that Russia's policies could lead in this direction and that Russia's position in the Syrian conflict was simply supportive of the al-Assad regime. "The violence in Syria could lead to civil war, or a proxy war, because of Iran's support of President Bashar Al-Assad's regime," she said.
Meanwhile, Anan said that Syria was edging closer to "all-out sectarian civil war," which would be "catastrophic for the entire Middle East." UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon warned that another massacre like that which had taken place in Hawla could plunge Syria into a civil war that the country would not be able to recover from.
Haitham Manaa, deputy director of the opposition Syrian National Coordination Body for Democratic Change (SNCBDC), which includes several opposition parties, told Al-Ahram Weekly that "there is no doubt that Moscow draws a distinction between the state and the regime, and does not view Al-Assad as sacrosanct."
"Russia believes that foreign military intervention would be disastrous for Syria, but for Russia, Al-Assad's departure would be an option as part of a comprehensive solution that would uphold the role of the military in the interim phase, like what is happening in Egypt."
"Russia no doubt wants Syria to adopt balanced international policies. From our perspective as the opposition, a solution could only be achieved through Russia and the US closing ranks with European support. Keeping Russia at arm's length has delayed finding a solution," Manaa said.
Moscow's strong opposition to any UN- sanctioned foreign military intervention in Syria, together with fading hopes that the regime will adhere to the six-point Anan plan, which requires it to withdraw the army from the country's towns and cities, end the violence, allow peaceful demonstrations by protesters and launch a dialogue with the opposition on the transitional phase, has caused western countries to indicate that there could be military intervention in Syria, with or without the Security Council's authorisation.
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that the US was ready for necessary military action in Syria, while adding that this would have to be supported by the Security Council. However, US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said that military action without a UN mandate could be necessary if the Security Council could not reach consensus.
Meanwhile, the Saudi foreign minister said that his country supported moves to create safe zones in Syria to protect civilians, though such statements have been downplayed by Russia and Syria, which count on the fact that no foreign power would be prepared to risk intervention in Syria without explicit UN Security Council authorisation.
Russia does not want to lose its strongest foothold in the Middle East, and it has repeatedly said that it will not change its position on the Syrian crisis. However, such statements have not stopped analysts from arguing that Russia is in fact monitoring conditions in Syria, with the aim of trying to discover if the regime is able to remain in power.
Moscow fears that its support will be futile if the Syrian regime is close to collapse, and that this would cause it to lose the gamble it is undertaking in supporting it.
The Syrian opposition also believes that Russia's influence over the Syrian regime is not complete, and that it is unable to convince or force Al-Assad to step down. The crisis would not be over even if Russia abandons the regime, opposition observers say, adding that it will continue its crackdown with or without Russian support, even if Russian withdrawal would make it weaker and more isolated.
"Nothing will convince the regime to implement the Anan plan and end the violence," Luay Hussein, leader of the opposition Building the State Party, told the Weekly.
"No one expects it to be convinced; it will have to be forced to take steps against its will. For several months now, Russia has not been committed to the authorities in Syria. Instead, it has been committed to the Syrian establishment. What it wants is a Syrian regime that will protect its strategic presence in the Middle East, or at least will not be hostile to it."
On the possibility that the West and Russia could inch closer together on the Syrian crisis, Hussein said that the "changes in international positions are moving towards Russia, not the other way around. The reality on the ground in Syria is starting to support the Russian position and to unsettle the West."
Amid the sometimes conflicting media reports it was reported that Denis McDonough, foreign policy adviser in the US Obama administration, had said that Washington was close to reaching an agreement with Moscow on removing Al-Assad from power. McDonough said that the Al-Assad regime had lost its legitimacy and warned that Russia's devotion to the regime did not serve its interests.
There is speculation that Russia's position may change soon, and some western politicians are gambling on Russia's sensing that it has lost support among the Syrian people, as well as the Arab countries, especially the Gulf states, and that this will force it to reconsider its interests.
Russia could thus still accept a deal with the West over Syria, with the Syrian people hoping that this will happen soon.