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Russia prepares for post-Assad Syria

Russia is finally acknowledging that President Bashar Assad’s rule may be nearing its end, indicating that the Kremlin is preparing for a Syria without the dynastic regime that has been a Moscow ally for over four decades.
The Kremlin is still needling the West by refusing to call on Assad to step down but its newly frank assessment of his survival chances appear to have given cautious hope to a frantic bout of year-end diplomacy. “Russia is not blind and Russian diplomats are not idiots. They see that the tendency is moving in one direction,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Moscow-based Council on Foreign and Defense Policy. “It’s already known to all what the final outcome will be, it is just not clear when this will happen,” he said.
In a rare visit by a top regime official abroad, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad traveled to Moscow this week for closed-door talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
This is to be followed by talks between Lavrov and the UN-Arab League peace envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi who will come fresh from a five-day visit to Damascus. The Russian Foreign Ministry has also toned down its hostility to the Syrian opposition National Coalition that is recognized by the West by inviting its leader Ahmed Moaz Al-Khatib for talks in Russia or outside.
Moscow’s shifting attitude has come amid rapid developments on the ground in Syria as fighters take more territory from the government and defections of key players further weaken the regime.
Its new tone was revealed earlier this month when Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov bluntly stated that Assad was losing more and more control of Syria and an opposition victory could not be ruled out.
His outspoken comments — reported by official media — were clearly meant to have been off-the-record but Russian leaders have since made similar assessments in more scripted remarks.
“We are not concerned about (Bashar) Assad’s fate. We understand that the family has been in power for 40 years and there is a need for change,” President Vladimir Putin said in his big end-of-year press conference. Lavrov revealed yesterday that Russia had told Muqdad it was time for the regime to put verbal pledges for dialogue with the opposition into action and look at ways of forming a transition. The minister had made clear in an interview with Russia’s RT state television last week that what Moscow objected to was being asked to act as a “postman” to send a message demanding Assad steps down.
“If president Assad is interested –- this must be discussed directly with him,” Lavrov said.
Lukyanov said Russia’s main aim now was ensuring there was no outside military intervention in Syria like the NATO-led air campaign that helped topple Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi last year.
“Russia is concentrating on the main aim, which is to ensure that the power in Syria does not change through military intervention,” he said. “Any political process that leads to a change of the authorities in Syria suits Russia.” The toppling of Qaddafi was a debacle for Russia, losing it billions in weapons and infrastructure projects and leaving Moscow disconnected from the new leaders of its former ally.
Under Putin, post-Soviet Russia has made great pains to try and keep its status as a great power and will work hard to ensure it keeps influence in a new Syria. Moscow enjoyed intense relations with the Baathist regime in Damascus ever since the rise to power of Bashar Assad’s father and predecessor Hafez Assad in the early 1970s.
That alliance won Moscow a naval base that it still uses in the Syrian port of Tartus as well as the 1980 treaty of friendship and cooperation which still theoretically forms the basis of their ties.
Russia has been the Assad regime’s main supplier of weapons and defied months of Western calls to halt military cooperation.
Even in the midst of the conflict, Turkey caught Moscow air-freighting to Damascus what Russia says was radar equipment for missile defense systems. The material was intercepted by Ankara.
“Russia has long realized that Assad has no future but found it hard to say this in public,” said Alexei Malashenko, analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Centre. He said Russia should have changed its tone on Assad’s future and taken a stronger line against his regime much sooner. “Now Russia is trying to get onto a train that has already left the station,” he said. “Russia’s main aim now is to save face,” he said.