Russia is progressively unveiling the objectives behind its large-scale military operations in Syria. Moscow is literally remapping the country to serve its long-term strategic interests, and to change its status in Syria from key player to sole manager.
Russia claimed that its aim in intervening directly was to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). However, skepticism has increased, with many parties - including Washington - accusing Moscow of hitting the opposition to save the deteriorating regime.
To challenge these allegations, Russia increased its bombing of ISIS and urged coordination from other countries.Today, however, Moscow does not seem worried about the world’s perception of its role in Syria.
Moscow may be ready to soften its stubborn stance on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as long as his replacement does not threaten its interestsRaed Omari
In its bid to dominate, Russia has reportedly entered talks with the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA). This is likely to be true in light of the decrease in FSA attacks against regime forces. Russia is trying to make its own recipe for a solution in Syria, but its goal is wider.
It hopes that its increasing military engagement in Syria will create a deal with the West over Ukraine that ends sanctions, which are hurting Russia’s economy, particularly given the sharp decline in oil prices. Moscow also hopes to fill the regional power vacuum left by U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East.
As such, Moscow may be ready to soften its stubborn stance on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as long as his replacement does not threaten its interests. Recent remarks by Russian officials point to this softening.
In his traditional end-of-year news conference, President Vladimir Putin made no mention of Assad being a necessity for Moscow, saying only that Syrians themselves should decide who leads them. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Kremlin wanted Syria to prepare for parliamentary and presidential elections.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova was more explicit. When asked in November whether it was crucial for Moscow that Assad remain in power, she replied: “Absolutely not, we’ve ever said that… Only the Syrian people can decide the president’s fate.”
Russia’s softening on Assad is also related to the U.S. position. Washington has spent a lot of resources and diplomatic effort on him stepping down, and so is unlikely to change course.
France, Britain, Germany and regional states also want Assad to stand down, as he bears responsibility for the conflict by waging war on his own people. Moscow cannot afford to be at odds with all these major players because it would mean more isolation.
Raed Omari is a Jordanian journalist, political analyst, parliamentary affairs expert, and commentator on local and regional political affairs. His writing focuses on the Arab Spring, press freedoms, Islamist groups, emerging economies, climate change, natural disasters, agriculture, the environment and social media. He is a writer for The Jordan Times, and contributes to Al Arabiya English. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @RaedAlOmari2
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