According to a recent interim report by the UN’s International Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the crisis has evolved from a battle to oust Bashar al-Assad into “a sectarian conflict, pitting entire communities against each other and pulling in fighters from the Middle East and North Africa.”
Throughout, Russia has been at odds with the West. Russia, which has significant economic interests as well as a naval base in Syria, has consistently called for a political solution and dialogue between the Assad regime and opposition forces rather than demanding Assad step down. Moscow has also refused to recognize the new opposition national coalition. As recently underlined by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Russia will continue to oppose any UN resolution that calls for international sanctions against Assad and opens the way for foreign intervention in Syria. Moscow insists that opposition demands for Assad’s resignation as a precondition for peace talks are counterproductive, only costing more lives. During a recent meeting with Lakhdar Brahimi, UN-Arab League special representative for Syria, Lavrov declared that President Assad had no intention of stepping down and that it would be impossible to try to persuade him otherwise.
No doubt Russia would happily deal with any leader who was interested in good ties with Moscow. While we are often led to believe that Russia and Syria, under the Assad family, have had an exceptionally cozy relationship over the last few decades, one only has to have a quick flick through the history books to see it has often been a bumpy ride. There have been numerous fallouts and even periods where relations have almost been frozen. These range from disagreements over Russia’s relationship with Egypt under former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the quality of arms supplied to Damascus, Syria’s intervention in Lebanon’s long civil war in the mid-1970s and Moscow’s improved ties with the US under Mikhail Gorbachev. Only after Vladimir Putin’s election in 2000 did relations really accelerate.
Yet, while Moscow is portrayed as Assad’s reliable ally, today with Assad’s grip on power slipping away, Moscow proclaims it does not care about the Assad regime. At his annual end-of-year press conference, Russian President Putin underlined that he was not concerned about the fate of the Assad regime, but rather in preserving stability and not allowing Syria to be overrun by terrorists. Putin’s statement would indicate that Russia has slightly adjusted its policy based on realpolitik. However, the Kremlin’s invitation to opposition leader Moaz al-Khatib to visit Moscow was rejected. Khatib, whose group is supported by many Western and Arab League nations, has demanded an apology from Moscow for supporting the Assad regime. This will never happen. This struck a blow to hopes for a broad dialogue, which does not bode well for efforts towards a political solution.
Like the West, Russia is concerned about what will come after Assad and how it will impact the balance of power in the region and Russia’s place in it, not least because Syria is the Middle Eastern country in which Russia has the strongest foothold. Coming at a time when Putin is trying to strengthen Russia’s outreach, he will not want to lose influence in this part of the world. A pro-Western, democratic government that snubs Moscow or a radical Islamist regime that is equally anti-Russian as it is anti-West are both undesirable prospects.
Still, as the saying goes, it is not wise to put all your eggs in one basket, and it seems Moscow seems also to be working on strengthening other relations in the region. Syria’s neighbor Iraq is one such example, with Moscow securing a multi-billion dollar arms deal with Baghdad earlier this year and Russian energy giant Gazprom also trying to increase its stake there. There is also Cyprus, with which Russia has close ties, and there has been some “talk” that Russia may try to establish a naval base there if the eventual end result in Syria does not favor it.