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Russia hedges its bets on Syria

Published: Updated:

December 2012 witnessed unexpected Russian statements and actions regarding Syria that warrant attention and analysis. “We must look squarely at the facts, and the trend now suggests that the regime and the government in Syria are losing control over more and more territory,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, adding that “it’s impossible to exclude a victory of the Syrian opposition.”

His words are “significant,” says BBC Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg. “Russia has been a firm supporter of President [Bashar] Assad, providing the Syrian government with political and military support; it has also protected the Syrian leader at the UN, by vetoing Security Council resolutions that would have increased the pressure” on him. “Now, for the first time, the Russians have publicly conceded that their ally faces possible defeat.”

Equally significant is Moscow’s dispatching of naval vessels to the eastern Mediterranean in readiness for a possible evacuation of Russian nationals.

Then came President Vladimir Putin himself: “We’re not concerned about the fate of Assad’s regime...We’re worried about...what next?” He added that Russia’s position is “not to leave Assad’s regime in power at any price, but to first [let Syrians] agree among themselves how they should live next. Only then should we start looking at ways to change the existing order.”

A day later, Putin said the Russians “look forward to a democratic regime in Syria,” adding: “We do not advocate the government of Syria.”

The following day, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that “no one’s going to win this war.” The importance of this statement is the acknowledgement that Assad would not be victorious. Almost a week later, on December 28, Lavrov said the Russian government has “actively encouraged” the Syrian regime “to maximally put into action its declared readiness for dialogue with the opposition.”

Not only that, but Moscow itself invited Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, head of the recently formed opposition Syrian National Coalition, for talks.

Nuanced shift

These statements and actions may signal a nuanced shift in Russia's hitherto unflinching support for Assad, but it is a shift nonetheless, and an important one at that. Moscow is arguably the Syrian regime’s most vital ally, being its biggest arms supplier, with a willingness to use its UN Security Council veto power (it has done so three times since the revolution began, and has blocked all draft Council resolutions condemning Assad).

“Russian officials certainly sound as though they’ve downgraded Assad’s survival chances,” says Stephen Sestanovich, senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. The Syrian dictator ought to be very worried indeed.

“If you look at Russian TV coverage of Syria, it’s quite clear that they’re now hedging their bets, that they understand Assad is losing ground; they’re reporting recent prominent defections” from his inner circle, says Dimitri Simes, president and CEO of the Center for the National Interest, a non-partisan public policy institution founded by former US President Richard Nixon.

“They wouldn’t want to be the last ones to be committed to this man,” adds Simes, who he describes as an “embarrassment” in terms of Russia’s relations with the U.S. and most Arab countries.

Moscow’s myriad strategic interests in Syria - as well as its loss of regional influence due to the Arab Spring, sanctions on Iran, and the U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan - have driven its support for the regime in Damascus. “Syria is kind of it in the Middle East at this point for Russia,” says Dmitry Gorenburg, a Russian expert with the Center for Naval Analyses.

However, Moscow may have come to the conclusion that it can now only safeguard those interests by moving away from Assad to curry favor with those likely to succeed him, but it's doing so slowly enough that it does not lose face.

Too little, too late

Such a strategy would resemble Russia’s stance vis-a-vis Libya’s revolution, initially opposing Nato’s aerial campaign, then recognizing the opposition National Transitional Council when it became increasingly clear that Muammar Gaddafi’s days were numbered. It was too little too late, with Libya’s new government suspending about $4 billion in previously agreed military contracts.

It will almost certainly be the same with Syria. “Even if Russia changes its stance now, it will be too late to be appreciated,” says Al Arabiya General Manager Abdelrahman AlRashed, adding that the Russians have chosen “to be partners with Assad in his crimes, have helped in prolonging the war and have played a part in the bloodshed.”

The conflict claimed 60,000 lives up to 30 November 2012, according to the United Nations. “The number of casualties is much higher than we expected and is truly shocking,” said UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay. “Given that there has been no let-up in the conflict since the end of November, we can assume that more than 60,000 people have been killed by the beginning of 2013.”

Opposition leader al-Khatib rejected Moscow’s invitation to talks, and said Russia should apologize for backing Assad, adding: “If we do represent the Syrian people, why doesn’t Russia respond and issue a clear condemnation of the barbarity of the regime and make a clear call for Assad to step down? This is the basic condition for any negotiations.”

Al-Khatib has been criticized for rebuffing Russia - particularly given its recent wavering - and he risks looking overly obstinate to his Coalition’s international backers. However, he may have calculated that accepting the invitation would risk domestic legitimacy and support. He may have never given the invitation any serious consideration in the first place: he must have been well aware that his conditions would never be met.

Syria’s importance to Russia

Having gambled the house on Assad, Moscow has much to lose after he is gone.

The military aspect of their long-standing relationship is the most important, not least because of the significance of the arms industry to Russia’s economy, and the fact that with more than 2 million Russians reportedly working for military-related businesses, they represent a considerable portion of the electorate.

The Syrian port city of Tartus hosts Russia’s only remaining naval base outside the former Soviet Union. In return for Moscow forgiving three-quarters ($9.8 billion) of Syria’s $13.4 billion Soviet-era debt, Assad agreed to the port’s conversion, renovation and enlargement into a permanent Middle East base for Russia’s nuclear-armed warships.

Syria is reportedly Moscow’s seventh-largest military client, with contracts worth at least $4 billion as of 2011. At a time of shrinking markets for Russian weapons - such as Libya and Iran - Syria has increased its purchases, whose value more than doubled from 2007 to 2010 compared with 2003 to 2006, according to an annual report by Richard F. Grimmett, a veteran international security specialist at the Congressional Research Service in Washington.

However, many Syrian arms purchases are financed by loans, says Ruslan Aliev, an arms-trade specialist at the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow research group. “They’re old customers, but they’re very poor.”

Furthermore, Assad “for a number of months has stopped paying his bills, so he’s not a reliable customer,” says the president and CEO of the Center for the National Interest. He “isn’t in a position to buy new Russian weapons, but Russia has legal obligations under old contracts.”

Moscow may be relieved of its contractual obligations with regime change in Damascus. This, and Assad’s increasing inability to pay for arms, may be part of Russia’s shifting calculus.

However, the relationship also extends to trade, with exports to Syria worth $1.1 billion in 2010, and investments there valued at $19.4 billion in 2009, according to the Moscow Times. Other economic ties include Russian companies with a substantial presence and interests in Syria’s oil, natural gas, agriculture, irrigation, telecommunications, infrastructure and tourism sectors.

End of an era

The Assad regime is hemorrhaging defections, and its forces are steadily losing ground to increasingly organized, recognized, trained and equipped rebel forces. As such, his ouster is a matter of when, not if, whether by military or diplomatic means (as things currently stand, more likely the former).

Russia seems to be realizing this, but far too late to have any meaningful ties with a post-Assad Syria. Its most enduring relationship in the Middle East is in irreversible jeopardy, and Moscow has only itself to blame.

The article was originally published in The Middle East Magazine.

(Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Center, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash)