Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1252, (25 June - 1 July 2015)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1252, (25 June - 1 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Moscow’s Syrian wager

Russia has pledged to support the Al-Assad regime in Syria to the bitter end, a policy that may find it with no friends left in the country, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

Members of the Syrian opposition sometimes speculate about a decline in Russia’s support for the regime led by President Bashar Al-Assad, arguing that Moscow has had enough of a faltering regime, that it cannot continue to stake its interests on a dictatorship that has overstayed its welcome, and that it wants to turn over a new leaf in Syria.

This would be a lovely thought, if it were true.

For four long years, Russia’s leaders have stood behind the Al-Assad regime in Damascus, granting it apparently unlimited support in political, economic and military terms.

At times, Russia would feign the role of an impartial mediator, but only as a thin veil, donned temporarily and in bad faith. What Moscow has really been aiming for is to degrade the Syrian opposition, identify the chinks in its armour, and find loopholes that will help perpetuate the life of the regime.

This attitude, part diplomacy and part bullying, has alienated much of the Syrian opposition, impelling many of its leaders to boycott any initiatives that come from Moscow and dismiss them as a waste of time.

It had also brought down opprobrium on Moscow from international and regional players. Even when Russian officials, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, have tried to give the impression that what matters for them is Syria’s territorial integrity, and not the survival of the Al-Assad regime, the assertion has rung false.

A few days ago, Putin ended all speculation on the matter, pledging his support for the Al-Assad regime to the bitter end. His argument was that the regime’s survival was the only guarantee against the country’s sliding down the path of disintegration that has been seen in Iraq and Libya.

Putin reiterated the need for Al-Assad to introduce reforms in cooperation with the opposition, a statement which made no impression whatsoever on the regime’s opponents.

For the past four years, the opposition has not given up all hope of a change in Russian policies on Syria. If only Moscow would play fair, things would get better, opposition leaders would say. Now, it looks as if all hopes of any change have ended.

It has not been Iran that has kept the Al-Assad regime in power. No doubt Iran sent activists and others into Syria, tipping the course of the conflict in favour of the regime.

But the bulk of the diplomatic and military support for the Al-Assad regime has come from the Russians, who have blocked every UN resolution against the regime, helped Al-Assad dismantle his chemical stockpiles, given him spare parts for his planes, and even printed his currency for him.

Moscow did everything it could to prop up the regime in the hope of keeping a foothold in the eastern Mediterranean. It was no matter that the regime destroyed cities at random, killed 200,000 people, and forced millions of others to flee. These were all small details when seen through the Tsarist eyes of Russia’s leaders.

It could be argued that Russia could have ended the Syrian crisis at any time simply by telling the regime to make a deal.

Syrian opposition member Munzer Aqbib, a key figure in the National Coalition of Syrian and Revolutionary Forces (NCSROF), believes that Moscow’s support for Al-Assad is likely to last to the bitter end.

“Putin’s position hasn’t changed over the years. He still insults the Syrian people and has no regard for their views or sacrifices,” Aqbib said.

According to Abqiq, Al-Assad could be defeated militarily, but international interests, including Moscow’s views, have kept him in power.

Former NCSROF member Louay Safi agrees with this assessment. Putin’s remarks, he said, showed that “Russia’s leaders have wagered everything on Al-Assad and ignored all the opportunities the opposition has offered for a political solution in Syria.”

“Although the regime’s military power has been much eroded, Russia continues to support it,” Safi said, though he did not rule out Russia ending up following the lead of an influential regional country with regards to Syria.

One option left for Moscow, Safi said, would be “to hitch its wagon to the train of influential regional countries”.

“Al-Sisi’s Egypt could be prepared to play this role,” Safi added.

There are also other possibilities that could change Russia’s mind. One is that the jihadist threat may spread to its own territories, in which case Moscow would have to reconsider its entire Middle East policy.

Another is that the US may decide to break the deadlock in Syria by force, in which case the Russians would also be likely to change tack.

A third possibility is that Moscow will support the regime to the bitter end. This would mean that when Al-Assad falls, it will find it has no friends left in Syria.

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