Russia and Syria

by David Satter

The meeting in Dublin today between Secretary of State Clinton, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, and mediator Lakhdar Brahimi could lead to new international pressure on the Syrian regime. Any Russian flexibility, however, will not reflect belated humanism but rather Russia’s belief that Syrian president Bashar Assad is not going to be able to hold on to power.

Russia has protected Assad by blocking, along with China, three U.N. Security Council resolutions that would have led to negotiations and Assad’s departure. Russia justified its position by insisting that Assad’s opponents were Islamic extremists and the U.S. was seeking to dictate conditions to a sovereign regime. Even the massacre of children at Houla on May 25 did little to change the Russian position.

Now, however, Russia appears to understand that Assad’s days are numbered. Russia reportedly evaded international sanctions and delivered 240 tons of newly printed Syrian banknotes to Syria. It also continues to refuse to embargo attack helicopters destined for Assad. But Vladimir Vasilyev, who heads Putin’s United Russia party in the State Duma, said in an interview today that Assad is no longer able to rule. “The existing government in Syria should carry out its functions,” he said. “But time has shown that this task is beyond its strength.”

Russian envoys are now meeting opposition politicians inside Syria, an unmistakable sign that they are looking for ways to preserve the Russian position after the fall of the Assad regime. In two weeks, Russia will also support a meeting of what it hopes will be a pro-Russian group, the National Coordinating Committee for Democratic Change.

None of these efforts, however, are likely to bear fruit. Russia always claimed to support the Syrian people not the regime. But it made demonstrative gestures of support for the Assad regime, such as the visit last year of a Russian aircraft carrier group to the Russian naval supply base in Tartus even as civilians were subjected to mass slaughter.

Russia is trying to adapt to changing circumstances but whatever steps Russia takes diplomatically, the 40-year period of Russian influence in Syria is over. In a further sign that Russia is losing faith in the ability of the Assad regime to survive, the Russian Embassy has started to evacuate some of the thousands of Russian citizens who live in Syria, many of them the wives of Syrian students who studied in Moscow in the years of the Cold War.

— David Satter is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). His latest book, It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past will be out next month in paperback from the Yale University Press. 

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