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December 20, 2012, Thursday

Russia should cooperate if it wants to protect post-Assad interests in Syria

Russia's close and deep relationship with Syria dates back to the Cold War years. It has military bases as well as other business interests in the country, including the arms trade.

To run Russian business interests, an unknown number of Russian citizens settled in Syria and some married Syrian women, which adds an emotional dimension to Russia's ties with Syria.

Russia, however, now faces the risk of losing not only it's business interests in this country but also its strategic weight in the Middle East region as a whole if it continues to support the regime of President Bashar al-Assad despite Moscow's own apparent belief that Assad's downfall appears to be nearing.

Such speculation has raised hopes, as the world has been frustrated with the Assad regime's brutal crackdown against the rebels since the outbreak of internal strife in March 2011.

According to Turkish diplomatic sources, Russia has seen that the end of Assad's regime is getting closer as he has begun to lose control of the country. Those sources cite, among other things, Russian President Vladimir Putin's public statement during a press conference in İstanbul on Dec. 3, 2012 that he was not Assad's lawyer as an indication of Russia's awareness of looming change.

The same diplomats also stress that it is hard to make any guess over when Assad's downfall may come to pass. At this point, however, the collapse of Assad's regime can be seen at the end of the tunnel. Russia is regarded by the international community as an important actor in pressuring Assad to leave.

Russia's strength so far in protecting the regime stems largely from its seat on the five-member UN Security Council (UNSC) which it has used to block a resolution intended to impose serious sanctions on Damascus. A resolution to this end could have had brought Assad's downfall a long time ago. China, as another member of the UNSC, has also been instrumental in preventing Assad's fall, but Russia's influence on Syria is incomparably greater than that of China due to its long-standing ties with Syria.

Nevertheless, as speculation has mounted that Assad's defeat may be closer than predicted, Russia is also in a position to make a choice in between either exerting its pressure on Assad to leave or lose its longtime business interests in this country forever.

In addition, Russia has increasingly been leaving a negative impression in the eyes of the Arab population, some of whom have unseated their own authoritarian rulers, due to its continued support of Assad despite his brutal crackdown on his own people, i.e. the opposition.

During his meeting in İstanbul on Dec. 3, with the Russian leader, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, allegedly on behalf of several of Turkey's allies, suggested that Putin put personal pressure on Assad to leave office, or alternatively, create another situation that would allow Assad to leave. Erdoğan allegedly gave Putin a friendly warning that he was risking losing all the Russian interests in Syria if he does not act quickly.

Russia is not expected to publicly indicate that it has changed its position of supporting Assad and that it is now encouraging him to go. There are, however, expectations that Russia might have already, though privately, begun exerting pressure on Assad to leave.

Turkey, in the meantime, which has significant bilateral economic ties with Russia, which are, in the words of a Turkish diplomat, unprecedented, in this situation, does, however, differ greatly with its trading partner on the Syrian question.

Russia is the second biggest trading partner of Turkey after Germany with trade volume between Ankara and Moscow predicted to reach to $35 billion by the end of this year.

Despite divergent views on Syria, since Turkey has sought Assad's downfall for a long time, both countries are of the opinion that they won't contribute to a solution to the Syrian question by confronting each other on this issue. At the end of the day, it is not in Turkey's interests to provoke such a big trading partner.

The events in Syria have taken on a new dimension. The sooner Russia cooperates with the international community in finding a less problematic transition in Syria, the more it will have the chance to guarantee its interests to be protected in the post-Assad period.

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