Why are Russians still supporting Assad?
It appears that the Russians are increasing their embrace of Bashar Assad today, more than at any time before. Evidence of this can be seen in what Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said during the press conference with his Iranian counterpart in Tehran, namely that Moscow is prepared to hold the special conference on Syria outside of Russia, indeed the Russians are prepared to hold this conference anywhere that the parties who will take part in this want!
This in itself represents an indication that Moscow is not just committed to holding this conference, but in fact that the Russians are now more desperate than ever to do so. Otherwise how can we explain Moscow calling for a special conference on Syria without putting a “price” on this, and then even agreeing that this conference could take place anywhere else (outside of Russia)? This is truly suspicious, particularly as the objection is not on the location of the conference, but rather who will participate in this, especially as Iran is the true partner — along with Russia — in supporting the tyrant of Damascus.
Therefore Lavrov’s statements about his country’s preparedness to hold a conference on Syria anywhere is nothing more than a sign of the embarrassing situation that Moscow currently finds itself in, particularly as the situation on the ground in Syria indicates that Assad is beginning to lose control, and it is a practical certainty that he will not be able to regain this control, not to mention restore the situation to what it was before the revolution.
All signs indicate that Assad’s ouster is inevitable, and the only question that remains is: how and when? Will this be by a coup, or a sudden collapse of his regime?
This is something that will represent a severe blow to Russia, whether it happens today or in the future, particularly as Moscow has proposed negotiations over the future of Assad whilst time has passed without any “buyer” coming forward, all the while Moscow’s influence in Syria is waning, particularly as the situation on the ground is not in Assad’s interests, and this is something that we previously made reference to. In this case, Assad’s ouster in a sudden and surprising manner or the complete destruction of the situation in Syria will both see Russia losing an important playing card. At this point, Moscow will be unable to secure its interests in the country, and therefore its words will be worthless. From here, perhaps we can understand Moscow’s desire to invite Iran to the special conference on Syria, as Russia wants to trade with Iran in the game of negotiations over the future of Assad. This is because Tehran holds the direct pressure card against Assad, and it could be in Iran’s interests to put forward an alternative to Assad who will serve their interests in Syria. As for Moscow, the only card it possesses today is the UN Security Council veto which it can brandish as an opponent, whether this is against the international community or Assad and Iran. Therefore Moscow’s strength today is its UN Security Council veto; however the signs on the ground place Moscow in an extremely embarrassing position and may deprive Russia of the “price” of toppling Assad.
From here, Russia’s cards are under threat, and Moscow may not be able to benefit from them, particularly as time goes by, and following the failure of the Annan mission. Therefore we can understand Lavrov’s statements regarding the possibility of holding the Syrian conference outside of Russia as part of Moscow sensing the seriousness of the situation of the ground, rather than evidence of Russia’s political flexibility or pragmatism. Moscow today is pushing — as strongly as possible — for this conference on Syria, in order to thereby ensure that Russia guarantees its present and future interests.
- The author is editor in chief of Asharq Al-Awsat.