By Adam Michalsk
Moscow lately has been kept under great pressure from the U.S. and EU. Criticized by the West on the issue of arms sales, UN Security Council repeated veto and support for the Assad regime, Russia has not only gained a bad image internationally but also received threats for Putin’s stance in Syria. As the situation builds up a negative image of Russia, Moscow seems to be angered more and more by what’s happening in Syria.
With this shaky mood in the background it has become clear to Moscow that to restore Syria back to its old status quo order is impossible. Supporting Assad or the “dead man walking” certainly is not an option given that the inevitable fall of the regime will happen sooner or later. On the other hand Russia fears that the removal of Assad will destabilize Syria, filling it up with sectarian conflicts which initially could have terrible spill-over effects for the region. One of those negative effects for Russia is possibly the radicalisation of Chechnya in the Caucasus region and the rise of extremist Muslims to power in the Middle East. The ideal situation for Moscow expressed by Andrei Klimov, vice chairman of Russian foreign affairs, is to: “give control over to someone else, who can maintain the secular nature of the regime and make sure Syria will not become a troublemaker in the region.”
A question asked by many up to this point, especially by the U.S. and EU, regards the true intentions that Russia has in the regime. Although Russia and Syria relationship has been portrayed by many as a stubborn alliance, late developments in Syria start to question this friendship. For how long will Moscow be able to continue playing this friendly Syrian game? Certainly not for long. Cracks between Assad’s and Putin’s relation are becoming bigger. In the background of such changing relations the Kremlin has started planning possible responses to Assad’s downfall. At this stage neutral politics is the way forward or in other words to be not against or pro Assad. Even Vitaly Churkin, Russian ambassador to the U.N., on the 23 July has taken a similar stance explaining Russia’s attitude towards the regime. It seems for him that it’s Russia’s obligation to negotiate with an old ally like Syria and not turn its back like the US done with Hosni Mubarak last year. “It’s not our style” said Churkin claiming that Moscow does not support Assad but it also does not support the rebels. However, Putin’s neutral politics towards Syria is also changing its nature especially during the last week or two. When asked the question of Russian/Syrian friendship on 24 July, Churkin responded with a voice of disappointment and speechlessness claiming that “Assad is not our nephew…. we’re not attached to his regime in any particular way.”
Late talks about the possibility of Assad fleeing to Moscow have received a furious reaction from Moscow. Such an option is not available for Assad as claimed by Russian officials pointing out that Assad is “too toxic to receive any such invitation”. A clear line of irritation is beginning to emerge between Russia and the Regime. Is that division the result of international discontent with Russia’s stance on Syria or is it the result of Russia fearing that post-Assad Syria will need strong Russian involvement in order to secure/preserve Moscow’s interests? It is certainly a combination of both factors but mainly the latter. What is important to understand is that change in Moscow’s diplomacy will take a different approach in the upcoming months but it will not change its nature, meaning the real interests it has in Syria. What are those real interests is certainly related to U.S. presence in the region and Russia’s declining influence, with Syria being its last stronghold.
So why is Moscow still against international cooperation if it knows that Assad’s regime is doomed? The answer is quite a complicated one but it certainly ties to Putin’s international and alongside this domestic goals. On the domestic scale Putin’s resistance to international cooperation on Syria gives him support from the majority of Russian citizens. Given the large protests against last year’s (re)elections, Putin seeks to find additional voices of support for his party. For now non-cooperative stance on Syria is part of the widely held consensus amongst Russians which views that Putin is the one man counterweight to the arrogance of America. Putting aside domestic politics, Moscow hopes that the power vacuum following Assad’s downfall will allow for Russia to squeeze in with its interests. This quest to preserve Moscow’s interests in post-Assad Syria combined with Putin’s domestic struggle for support is initially the main barrier preventing cooperation with the West.
As for now Putin’s policy has not worked out well. Alongside criticism from the EU and U.S. it has also received vast criticism from the rebels in Syria. Russia is certainly not blind to this factor and will be re-focusing its stance on the post-Assad setting. Is this going to create cooperation between Moscow and Washington is doubtful. Interests will likely remain divided and so will the international community.