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Will the Syrian cause benefit from the Russian absence?

Russia has begun to back away from Syria as its engages itself in an important battle over Crimea

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

Published: Updated:

Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov is notably absent from the Middle East. As instead of continuing to ignite the fire in Syria, he is occupied with putting one out on his country’s borders.

There is certainly no surprise there, as Ukraine is the now most important battle for Moscow since the collapse of the Soviet Union. This fight will require a lot of time, money and energy – even more so than what was spent on supporting Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria.

On that note, one still doesn’t understand till this day why the Russians decided to play a destructive role in Syria over the course of the atrocious three-year war! As the Assad regime was never a real ally for the Russians and Syria wasn't of high strategic importance for the Russians anyway; particularly that Moscow found an alternative port in Greece to the one they had been using in Syria’s Tartus. Furthermore, the two countries do not even share the same rivals.

The irony is that Russia aspires to obtain Middle Eastern support, or at least a neutral position, when it comes to its battle with the West over Ukraine.

On that note, what was also surprising was Putin’s recent statement where he said he hopes that Gulf countries won't push oil prices down – and although Gulf countries don’t wish to interfere in the oil market or reduce prices, it is no secret that the region's people currently view Russia with hatred they've never felt before, given that Russia is directly responsible for the manslaughter in Syria and has supported Assad militarily and financially, as well as used its Veto rights to cover up for the regime’s crimes.

Russian-backed Assad

For its part, the Russian propaganda machine continues to justify Moscow’s stance on Syria, repeating that the position stems from being against the terrorist Islamist groups fighting there. However, there is no question that it knows the whole truth on the ground, which is that the regime planted and penetrated these groups and used them to terrorize the Syrian people and intimidate the West.

Russia has begun to back away from Syria as its engages itself in an important battle over Crimea

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

Above all, and in order to confirm that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has nothing to do with these groups, it has been proposed to Russia that the FSA cooperates to confront al-Qaeda groups and particularly the fighters who came from countries surrounding it.

In all cases, Syria, for the Russians, has become a game of marginal gains. This is why we no longer see much of foreign minister Lavrov, now that Ukraine has been lost to the West and now that Russia will be engaged in a complicated intelligence, diplomatic, military, and economic battle that may last for years.

The obvious question here is whether Russia's absence benefits the Syrian cause. The answer is it may do so, but not immediately. After all, it is Iran, not the Syrian regime, which is bearing the real burden in the Syrian war and it seems to be willing to go on. However, the absence of Russian support means it (Iran) will inevitably get exhausted.

Iran shoulders responsibility

A clear indicator of this (that Iran is getting exhausted) is the fact that President Rowhani's government had to move towards raising fule prices for the first time in decades. And on this front, it is worth noting, that the slight relief obtained by the easing of U.S. boycott in return for Iran’s engagement in nuclear talks did not have much of a positive impact.

The suffering in Iran is mostly due to its involvement in this costly war in Syria and we will see the repercussions of this on the Iranian economy as reducing the government staple on petroleum derivates is likely to increase anger in Iran, where there has been tension since the days of the Green Revolution.

In addition, the propaganda efforts attempting to appeal to the Iranians' sentiment and to convince people that committing to protecting the Assad regime is a religious duty, a supreme national necessity and an essential measure to halt conspiracies, no longer works; as despite all these efforts, criticism over this involvement has begun to grow louder.

As the Russians back away from Syria, Iran will first be to feel the burden, and then the by Assad regime. As such, the Syrian regime’s last bullet is to try to sabotage the opposition camp so there seems to be no alternative to it. This is the game it mastered in Lebanon and this is how it succeeded in controlling the Lebanese for a long time, and it may succeed at this in Syria.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on April 27, 2014

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Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.