Russia and Syria’s Assad: The End of the Affair?

It has become clear to many officials in Moscow that the Assad regime cannot restore the pre-rebellion status quo in Syria, forcing them to consider backing away from a longtime client

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BULENT KILIC / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

Syrians run for cover as a helicopter hovers over the northern city of Aleppo on July 24, 2012.

The phone line from Moscow to Syria is shaky, giving off static and a faint echo, and it does not help that Russian official Andrei Klimov sounds exhausted. He is cagey about his exact location in Syria, saying only that he is “a few kilometers away from the action.” That could mean any of a number of towns and cities where armed revolutionaries have been fighting the forces of President Bashar Assad for almost a year and a half. In that time, thousands of Syrian civilians have been killed, and dozens of Russian diplomats, officials and military strategists have been flying in and out of Damascus on various pretexts — as election observers, as peace-brokers or morale-boosters for the regime. Some Russians even ostensibly enter Syria as holiday makers. “Let’s just say I’m here for myself, in a personal capacity” says Klimov, who is the vice chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s parliament. Perhaps, but the purpose of his trip this week was also to figure out the regime’s options in the conflict, and Russia’s. “There don’t seem to be any good ones,” Klimov says.

Any hopes that Assad’s forces could bludgeon the rebellion into submission have started to look delusional. Even Russia, one of Assad’s oldest and most stubborn allies, is becoming resigned to his downfall. “I don’t think anyone in the world, including Assad himself, seriously believes that he will be able to control the country for years to come,” says Klimov. “In my view, the ideal situation is if Assad gives 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.”

(PHOTOS: The Syrian Arms Race: Photographs by Yuri Kozyrev)

If the Kremlin agrees with this assessment, it has not yet made public that conclusion. President Vladimir Putin has stuck consistently to the view that both sides of the conflict need to negotiate a resolution on their own, and he even suggested on July 23 that forcing Assad to step down would only make matters worse. “The opposition and the current leadership could simply switch sides, with one taking control and the other becoming the opposition, and the civil war will continue for nobody knows how long,” he told a joint press conference with Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti.

But a little further down the diplomatic hierarchy, the last few months have brought a significant change in tone. Just take Vitaly Churkin, Russian ambassador to the U.N., who in February had mounted a rousing defense of Russia’s refusal to turn its back on the Syrian government. “If you are our ally, we are not going to turn around overnight and say, ‘Well, you know, we’ve had good relations with you over the years, but now, thanks, no thanks, deal with your problems, we are not going to do anything about it,'” Churkin had told U.S. talk show host Charlie Rose. That was a veiled rebuke of Washington’s refusal to prop up its longstanding ally, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, during the revolution that overthrew him last year. “It’s not our style,” Churkin said at the time. But on Tuesday, July 24, he spoke to Charlie Rose again, and the host pressed him on whether the Russian-Syrian “friendship” had changed in the last six months. This time, Churkin gave a deep sigh before answering. Assad “is not our nephew, you know,” he said. “He’s not related to us, and we’re not attached to his regime in any particular way.”

Like a delinquent younger brother, Syria has nonetheless been causing Russia a great deal of embarrassment. Rarely can a senior Russian official make a public appearances these days, especially in the West, without being grilled on the massacre of civilians in Syria, on Russian arms sales to Assad, or on Russia’s repeated veto of U.N. sanctions against the regime. During a brief press conference on Monday, two of the four questions for Putin were about Syria, and he was visibly annoyed at having to repeat himself, giving his answers in a blunt staccato. On Tuesday, Moscow again had to distance itself from Syrian blunders, after Syria’s foreign ministry spokesman suggested the regime might use chemical weapons, prohibited under international humanitarian law, if it faced attack from abroad. On its website, the Russian Foreign Ministry then gave Damascus a curt reminder to “unwaveringly uphold its international obligations.”

(MORE: After Assad: What’s Next for the Future of Syria?)

Some Russian military officials have also been annoyed by what they see as Assad’s indecisiveness in fighting the rebels. Konstantin Sivkov, a military hawk who served as a strategist for the Russian General Staff between 1995 and 2007, visited Syria in May, ostensibly to monitor the parliamentary elections but mostly to meet with officials. Sivkov was surprised, he says, with how “gentle” Assad has been in crushing the revolution. “Believe me, some of our guys have told Bashar to adopt much harsher methods, carpet bombing, total destruction,” Sivkov told TIME after returning to Moscow. “If that approach was chosen in Syria, there would be no rebels left after one week, and everyone would be happy.”

Instead, Moscow has been put in the awkward position of having to invite the rebels over for talks, which gave perhaps the clearest signal that Russia is looking beyond Assad’s rule. On June 11, a delegation from the Syrian National Council had an audience with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who tried to convince them to negotiate with Assad. But the SNC delegates also felt as if the Russians were sizing them up. “They are looking for partners in the opposition,” Bassma Kodmani, the SNC’s foreign affairs officer told TIME afterward. One of the senior Russian diplomats even tried to express some sympathy with the rebel cause, says Monzer Makhous, an SNC member who took part in the talks. “During one of the breaks, he leaned over to me and said, ‘We know Assad is like Stalin, we know,'” Makhous recalls. To him that only meant one thing: “Some of them are ready, even eager, to abandon him.”

(VIDEO: A Syrian Soldier Claims to Have Witnessed Atrocities)

At the very least, Russia is tired of being looked upon as Assad’s protector. When rumors emerged in the Western press last week that Assad and his family might flee to Moscow, the Russian reaction was furious. “That is not on the table,” U.N. ambassador Churkin fumed on Wednesday during the interview with Rose. Russia has in the past given asylum to the families of embattled despots such as former Serbia president Slobodan Milosevic or former Kyrgyz strongman Askar Akaev, but the Assads are clearly too toxic to receive any such invitations.

Asked whether Russia might take him in, Klimov, the parliamentarian, finally raises his voice over the telephone line from Syria. “Why not Australia,” he demands. “Why don’t they give their fair contribution to the cause of international peace?” Russia has enough image problems as it is, Klimov says, and granting asylum to Assad’s family now “would be piled on top of Russia’s list of supposed sins.” On top of that, anyone that succeeds Assad “will despise Russia 100 times more if we give [him] safe haven,” adds Klimov.

So, much like the rest of the world, Russia is left to hope against hope that Assad will simply agree to step down. That does not mean, however, that Russia will join the rest of the world in pressuring to do so. The only one who can make such a drastic shift in Russian policy is Putin, and he has not caught the changing winds climbing up through his hierarchy. Last week, Russia and China used their veto power in the U.N. Security Council to block sanctions against Assad for the third time. This brought down another wave of condemnation from the West, but Putin did not give an inch in his rhetoric. “At home, this stand-off with the West is great for his image,” says Nikolay Zlobin, head of the Russia and Eurasia Project at the World Security Institute in Washington. Putin’s core electorate still reveres him as a one-man counterweight to the arrogance of the U.S., Zlobin says, and Putin is prepared to suffer a lot more isolation to maintain that image at home. But putting aside domestic Russian politics, “the hope is that some power vacuum will emerge [in Syria] into which Russia might squeeze,” says Zlobin. “So far, that strategy hasn’t worked out so well.” Not for Russia, and certainly not for Syria.

PHOTOS: Inside Syria’s Slow-Motion Civil War

77 comments
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Orjowan_Alshamy
Orjowan_Alshamy

Russia, china, and Iran governments supported the dictator Al-assad by money and weapons and they are directly partners in this mascaras.

But the hidden dirty rule of US government and its allies in Saudi and Qatar has big responsibility in making the Syrian tragedy takes longer and longer, because they want to reform Syria on their shape, civil war and extreme Islamist to begin a war with Iranian regime!!!

this revolution in Syria proved that the global decision makers in West and East are still same as all big killers in the human history.

By the way, US was more clever to help in throwing away Moubark, and then give the country to the Saudi and Qatar money and extreme Islamist groups

Tereza Martins
Tereza Martins

Some of you guys smoke too much and the stuff is clouding your minds. Leave the delusions of grandeur alone and clean your cities instead. Some comments are very ignorant.

ExPAVIC
ExPAVIC

SOUNDS HOPEFUL

Maybe Mitt Romney will keep his mouth shut about matters he knows nothing about, and not tick off Putin like some of his recent, previous  mindless utterances 

Someone should inform him the American Taliban Republican favorite Cold War is over and it is time for Russia and the U.S. to address the Muslim threat together.

db49
db49

An amazing article. So often it is without even thinking that we begin to think so badly of those who hold an opinion at variance with the one we hold. The fact that they, like ourselves, are trying their best to understand a situation that is admittedly not given to easy understanding, can completely escape us. This article allowed me a better look at things from a Russian perspective, and for that, I thank you.

Mohsen Younes
Mohsen Younes

got to love all the armchair experts.

I am Australian of Syrian descent, and i can tell you, what is on the news is not what it seems.

we have islamists fighting to topple a government run by a minority. Once it is toppled, Genocide of the alawites will follow, then the Arab Jews, then the Christians and Shi'ites.

Followed by Sharia law, and suddenly my once free country is an islamist slum.

Tereza Martins
Tereza Martins

I agree…Mega poverty is coming to Syria under the banner of democracy and freedom. The mercenaries don’t care who they kill.

BobTheDoc
BobTheDoc

This is rubbish! Sorry but you, yourself is no more than a spectator! And sound like one with an affiliation as well!

The ppl who are fighting, by and large, are former solders of the Assad regime!

ricardo lion
ricardo lion

"....then the Arab Jews....".  But most of those Muslim Arab bloody dictatorships and medieval kingdoms are judenrein.  Jews have been killed or kicked out.  800,000 were expelled after 1950, but they don't live in refugee camps anymore and are not blowing themselves up, of course.

whitechildren
whitechildren

Anti-whites say:

- All power that Whites have in formerly White

societies is bad. All power that Whites have in non-White societies is bad.

White should have no power anywhere on Earth.

- Anti-Whites “do not see race.” Except when it comes time to blame our race

for everything bad in the world.

- Whites are not entitled to the fruits of our people’s labour. This is

“privilege” and must be atoned for by giving everything we have built over to

non-Whites. However, non-Whites are entitled to the fruits of their people’s

labour and any attempt to take that from them is evil.

- White people as individuals and societies can never succeed through hard work

and ingenuity. Any success that a White person or society has is bad and an

unearned “privilege.” Any success that non-Whites have is due to their own

virtues.

Anti-racist is a codeword for anti-white

kafantaris
kafantaris

What we are seeing in Syria is a preview of the demise of the Iranian regime. 

The regime sees it too -- though it looks the other way. 

Nonetheless, the writing is on the wall. 

And it was put there with the blood of the Iranians killed while peacefully protesting the Ahmadinejad election. 

It is the shedding of innocent blood that started the Arab spring, and it will be the shedding of far more Iranian blood that will end it. 

Such is the fate sealed by the brutality of that regime in 2009.

Bruno
Bruno

Thats highly unlikely times Russia still supports Assad. 

Rahul Singh
Rahul Singh

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O_Pinion
O_Pinion

Let's not forget Russia had a nice cozy agreement with Hitler and the Nazi's until Hitler launched Barbarossa. So one shouldn't be surprised that they have trouble discerning good from evil.

romano71
romano71

What's happening to the Syrian people is a tragedy. But coldly analyzed, why do we want to spend money we don't have, in a war where we are going to be put at odds with Arab countries (again!), where in one year's time, we will be called "invaders" and "colonialists"? And ultimately the bigger picture: When did it fall on us to right all the wrongs in the world? Why can't the Arab Nations League step up?

BobTheDoc
BobTheDoc

Russia has committed political suicide in Syria and does not know how to come out of it. Carpet bombing the entire population is not the way out of a popular revolution! It shows how out of touch Russia is with its barbaric stance!

 

But if Russia (and Iran for that matter) had played its cards right at the beginning, taking a ‘neutral stance’, it could have come out as the most influential party in resolving the conflict, hence, securing its own interests in Syria.  As it is, Russia is set to loose everything!

Rod
Rod

And we all can sing for peace but sad reality is wars have always happened. So, apparently, the best that one can contribute is to minimize casualties. :-(

Rod
Rod

And world commission on human rights  should illegalize act of conscription by States, putting that in the category same as recruiting minors in armed conflicts. 

Send only volunteers, of legal age,  to the war front. Some hawks can then play pied piper for war and who cares. :-(

Rod
Rod

Putin's stance in the Syria conflict also has effect in Russian politics. He will go with that to consolidate his own standing with the Russian people.  What would that be? And there is sister China and others behind the shade.

I think the clock is ticking back to the time of the "cold war" for the Americans, quite similar but distinctly different.

futbol4life
futbol4life

the  new democracy in Syria should not and will not, I believe, ever be partners with the corrupt regimes of Russia and Iran until they have regime change of their own. Both Russia and Iran have the blood of thousands of  innocent Syrians on their hands. The west and the U.S. would have been smart to assist the Syrians in their quest for freedom and become the new favored partner post Assad.

SkarPhace
SkarPhace

I see the lackluster response from the Obama administration on Syria, especially when it comes to putting pressure on Russia and China to give up on al Assad, and I can only figure one thing: the Obama administration does not want to get involved in Syria and therefore do not mind Russia and China taking the blame for America not getting involved.

However, we are not fooled. We paid attention during the Libya crisis and saw that Obama only got involved when he pretty much had no other choice. His policy on Syria has been and will continue to be the same.

Some would say this is a good thing: the US cannot afford to be the World's policemen any longer. Others would point at the fact that we still spend 10 times more on our military than any other country in the world. If we are no longer the policemen of the World, then why are we paying so much in taxes to keep the military so bloated?

Sherman Ellen
Sherman Ellen

 regarding Libya, if Obama is an anti colonialist, not getting "involved" is a poor substitute for standing result against all the other powers and saying - not on my watch fellas. - Lead-er. you lead. that's what it means. So he lets people go...lets them drown, don't go swimming with him, he won't save you....unless - unless he did. in which case sorry for the email.

romano71
romano71

Lead what? Since when do we have to pay for all the wars to fix every country in the world? We don't get paid to do any of this....what is the goal of getting into Syria??? Helping people out against the regime? Please! Before we know it they will elect yet another tyrant...it is in their nature to be subjugated.

Sherman Ellen
Sherman Ellen

 I am not advocating war at all. Quite the contrary. Had we really stayed out - no refueling, no cia, no vote for no fly...you see. we are heavily invested in what happened.

huntjumpp
huntjumpp

I think Obama has been a genius on foreign policy.  I agree, we should cut defense spending and cut our "policeman" status of the world. It inevitably creates enemies because as police, there is also a "bad guy" and they tend to hate us.

Leland Williams Jr.
Leland Williams Jr.

The Russians love Czar Putin.  Syrians are divided on Assad....haves and have nots.  

proterozoic
proterozoic

Remember how conservatives kept complaining about how fast Obama abandoned Mubarak? Wouldn't it be so much better if we "stuck by our ally" and ended up like Putin in Syria?

Bushney
Bushney

Very good observation.

Andrea Meluzzi
Andrea Meluzzi

Send in American Abrams tanks and helicopters and put this regime to BED INDEFINITELY!!!!!!

mk0411
mk0411

Why risk one of our boys lives?  The Arabs hate Christians.  We could get sucked into a protracted war and get sucked out for billions of $'s for what?  People that hate us for  being the hated Christian West?  Let the LOCAL arab countries deal with it.  We are  seven  thousand miles away!  In Iraq more than 500 christians have been killed this year for being Christian.  Who needs that?

mk

Sherman Ellen
Sherman Ellen

 there already are boots on the ground...come on! I just do not understand why if the global interests want a person gone so they can profit why don't they just say so? this lying to us all the time is so foolish. it cheapens the global regard for all government doesn't it?

Mohamed Hisham Darweesh
Mohamed Hisham Darweesh

it isn't so easy this time. 

I guess America will send Turkey to do that .America is afraid of direct collision with Russia

Bushney
Bushney

No boots on the ground.

sehmi
sehmi

Reversal of position is an old tradition of Russian leaderships. There is nothing new or change in their perception or culture since WWII.

Doglover77
Doglover77

devildog0341 says that Al Quada did not exist during the Soviet / Afghan war and he is right in that they were not called Al Quada when they were committing terrorist attacks on behalf of the CIA who trained and sponsored them. To be blunt, Osama bin Ladin was trained and supported by the CIA and devildog needs to take off his blinders and do the research.

rockysfan
rockysfan

Fearful much Putin?  Should be!  I'm sure your people are taking note of what's going on in Syria.  You need to back away or your country may be next.  People will only take so much before they turn on their leaders.  Look in the mirror, Putin!

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Aaron Gibbons
Aaron Gibbons

 It seems Russia is in an uncomfortable position. Better them than us,

but let us hope a truly representative government that respects the

rights of the Syrian people, and will maintain good relations with it's

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protank
protank

I hope they destroy each other to the last. Assad. Brotherhood= same

sjdsh
sjdsh

Because of the fallout from the 2011 Libyan democracy bombing

campaign,

Russia and China

will Not allow a UN-backed military operation to be repeated in Syria,

neither country has conceded a single political inch to

western powers.

DC and extremist allies needed to find a new

modus operandi to prevent an escalation that will prove disastrous.

The death of Colonel Gadhafi has inspired new thinking (double VETOx3) concerning the

US/NATO/MB/Alqaeda Oil Inc.'s Middle Eastern ect.

foreign policy.This is an asymmetry warfare. Russia is doing what needs to be done:keeping

things in check.We know the NATO/Alqaeda coordinated assault on Syria last week failed. Russians ships will remain in the area for another 6 months in which

time the Alqaeda terrorists should be defeated by the Syrian Arab

Army.

kandw101
kandw101

You are right dude. The more you play with the animals the more likely you are to get bit!!

edward_s
edward_s

niiiiice, wheres all the westerners haters now? Even Russia has come to the conclusion that Assad can"t hold office. Sanctions and talk looking like it's working even if at slow pace.

spoton101
spoton101

 Absolutely right. Its dead if you do, dead if you dont. When America goes in, they complain and demand reparations and Visas. When America doesn't, then they claim its heartless and doesn't care.