As the crisis in Syria reaches unfathomable proportions, the international community waits with bated breath on that one moment where Russia will change its stance and renege on its support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Analysts have been forecasting the Russian U-turn for months, with analysts, diplomats, think tanks anticipating it every time a major international meeting takes place but each time a breakthrough seems near, the dream always turns sour.
The Geneva meet on Saturday is no exception.
In the past, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin or his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavarov have fallen short on delivering on the hopes of the international community on Syria. The only clarity is their steadfast support for Assad’s regime and a refusal to support any interventional whatsoever.
However, the London-based International Centre for Development Studies, in a new report indicated that may soon change, citing Russia’s ability to read the ground realities on Syria ─ the growing number of army defections ─ and the protests reaching the capital Damascus as a major shift in their thinking.
Russia, the center believes, will not want to be alienated from any political transition plan in the post-Assad scenario. Its insistence on having Iran participate in the Geneva meet is also an indication that it wants both parties – i.e. both Assad allies – to be involved in the future of Syria.
Analysts believe Russia may be awakening from its slumber and does not want a repeat of its experience in Libya where it is not a stakeholder in the country’s rehabilitation.
Its business interests in Syria are well known, as is the theory that its support of Assad is tied it into those interests.
The International Centre for Development Studies listed in its report Russia’s interests in Syria to highlight how much it has at stake in the conflict-ridden country. In 2007, it signed a deal to build a gas refinery in Palmyra; a Russian company co-built a gas refinery with the Syrian state company; another company is exploring oil with a Syrian firm and Russia is trying to increase capacity of a thermal power station in Syria.
Additionally it is encouraging Iraq and China to invest in the oil and energy sector in Syria, thereby creating a bloc of sorts that has a lot at stake should the international community decide to intervene militarily, throw the government out and put a regime in place that isn’t friendly towards Assad’s friends.
That analysis, simplistic and widely believed as it is, hasn’t proved a deterrent to the Russians but as the likelihood of a post-Assad future grows imminent, Russia realizes it cannot afford to lose its business interests in Europe or the Arabian Gulf.
It is not just about its stake in Syria now.
Take for example what the London-based center has listed as the investments coming into Russia and Europe’s dependency on Russian gas for example. “Kuwait has recently invested $500 million in a Russian sovereign fund that is expected to reach a capital of $10 billion to invest in promising sectors in Russia,” the report lists to cite one example of the investments.
Russia can’t afford to lose this and so much more for whatever its interests are in Syria. The situation has become bigger than just Syria, and much is at serious threat as and when diplomatic efforts fail with Assad.
Can Putin and co. thus afford to ignore the writing on the wall on Syria, especially if it is likely to harm them in the long run?
(Written by Muna Khan)