Russia and Its Syrian Debacle: When the Enemy of My Friend Becomes My Friend

Apparently acceding that its erstwhile ally Assad may lose the civil war, Moscow may be cosying up to acceptable members of the opposition

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Narciso Contreras / AP

A Free Syrian Army fighter offers evening prayers beside a damaged poster of Syria’s President Bashar Assad during heavy clashes with government forces in Aleppo, Dec. 8, 2012.

On the night of Nov. 29, a dozen Syrian opposition figures gathered at a student eatery in Moscow called Picasso, a cheap dive on the campus of the University of People’s Friendship whose walls are decorated with a mashup of images from the artist’s blue period. It may sound odd that enemies of Bashar Assad were gathering in a country that still had the dictator’s back. But these men and their organization may be Russia’s only hope of influence in a post-Assad Syria.

As young men, several of the Syrians at Picasso had studied at the university, which hosted the exchange programs that formed the early bonds between Moscow and Damascus in the 1960s. Indeed, the gathering could have been mistaken for a class reunion, as toasts were made and stories told around a table laden with snacks and bottles of midshelf vodka.

(MORE: Syria’s Agony: The Photographs That Moved Them the Most)

Wearing a black leather jacket and a week’s worth of stubble, Riad Darar, a former imam and one of the leading members of the group known as the National Coordination Committee (NCC), sat at the table sipping juice and nibbling on a quesadilla. In Syria, his group is viewed among the rest of the opposition as Assad collaborators. The Free Syrian Army denounced it in September as “the other face” of the regime, and unlike other opposition groups, the NCC has not called for the entire ruling government to be chased out of power.

That is one of the reasons the NCC gets along so well with Russia, which has been seeking forces inside Syria who are willing to negotiate with Assad. In this regard, the NCC may have been Russia’s last hope of shielding its ally. Earlier on Nov. 29, Darar and the other members of the group had met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whose position, they felt, had clearly changed. “We have always tried to explain to the Russians that they shouldn’t be on the side of the regime but on the side of the people,” Darar says. (One of his comrades at the table translated for me from Arabic to Russian.) “In this most recent meeting, we felt that they now understand.”

If so, it still took the Russian government an additional two weeks to admit that Assad — Russia’s last true ally in the Arab world — is losing the civil war. On Dec. 13, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov — the ministry’s Middle East point man and a fluent Arabic speaker — became the first senior government official to publicly state that Assad’s downfall looks imminent. “We have to face the facts,” he told a session of the Public Chamber, an advisory body to the Russian government. “The trend is going in such a direction that the regime is losing ever more control over ever more parts of the country’s territory,” said Bogdanov, whose remarks were carried by two of Russia’s leading news agencies, state-owned Itar-Tass and the more independent Interfax. The next day, the ministry denied that Bogdanov had made any “statements or special interviews for journalists” and held firm to its position that “there is no alternative to a political resolution” to the conflict. But even if Bogdanov’s remarks were not meant for public consumption, they signaled a turning point. “Of course we cannot rule out the opposition’s victory,” he said, according to both news wires.

(MORE: Is Russia Running a Secret Supply Route to Arm Syria’s Assad?)

Faced with that prospect, it was only logical that Russia would start looking for willing partners within the opposition. The West had started this process long ago. After months of vetting rebel groups for possible links to al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, the U.S., the E.U. and several Arab states bestowed their stamp of approval on a broad assembly of rebel groups called the Syrian National Coalition, which was formed in Qatar on Nov. 11. On Dec. 11, the U.S. recognized it as the only legitimate Syrian government, and about 100 other countries followed. Russia stayed away, calling the new group illegitimate, while continuing to look for its own rebel allies.

The NCC seemed the obvious choice. It is the only opposition group that is still prepared to negotiate with Assad, and it’s the only one to agree with Russia that supplying arms to all rebels must stop. At the restaurant, Haytham Manna, the NCC’s foreign-affairs official, even parroted Russia’s criticism of the West for double dealing, saying it was wrong for the U.S. and Europe to call for a peace deal while also supporting the rebels. “That’s [like having] one hand in my house and one hand in the house of my neighbor,” he said, playing with a string of ivory-colored prayer beads. “It’s not really a good option.”

But for Russia, there are no good options left. The NCC is made up mostly of academics and dissidents with no military wing, and it has little hope of turning the situation in Russia’s favor if Assad is overthrown. “They have zero influence in Syria,” says Hassan Al-Huri, a Syrian businessman in Moscow who owns the Picasso restaurant and hosted his countrymen there. “If anything, the Syrian people now hate them for associating with the Russians,” he told me after the dinner was over.

That means Moscow has no choice but to accept the loss of its last real foothold in the Middle East, says Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs. Says he: “Maybe they have no more illusions.”

MORE: Is Syria’s Civil War Entering Its Final Act or Poised for a New Phase?

10 comments
jacquesshellac
jacquesshellac

The big problem for Russia is that they've supported a despotic Ba'athist regime in Syria for deacades, with plenty of blood on its hands. Now the locals are strong enough to do something about it, and the Russians can't bring enough killing force to bear on them. This leaves them in the uneviable position of trying to defend their indefensible policy with regards the Syrian people.

I don't expect Russian nationalists will be able to talk their way out of this one. Won't stop them from trying of course..

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

Simon Shuster was lying. This is a common lie that the Western media is repeated from day to day. Allegedly first Russia supported Bashar al-Assad and now throws it. In fact Vladimir Putin and Minister of foreign Affairs of Russia Sergey Lavrov with the beginning of the conflict have repeatedly - Russia does not support the regime of Bashar al-Assad, as well as any other regime in the world. We protect international law. Russia and China, as countries having the right of veto at the UN, a heavy load of responsibility. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stressed that Russia and China agreed that violations of the international law and the UN Charter must not be permitted.Member of the Chinese State Council Dai Bingguo: the Russian and Chinese diplomatic cooperation is based on "the need to strictly adhere to the international norms and the principles contained in the UN Charter, and not to allow their violation." There is no difference who will be the next President in Syria. The main thing that it was the choice of the Syrians, without interference from outside. The United States and NATO, and some of the countries of the Persian Gulf supported the armed opposition and the coordination of actions of international terrorists, penetrating in Syria. Such actions are accompanied by a large amount of misinformation in the Western media, Western media are complicitthe terror . Disinformation aimed at destabilizationother States, is a "state terrorism", in accordance with the Geneva Convention, 1978.

OrlandoOtownplumbingCrespo
OrlandoOtownplumbingCrespo

The yanks are coming we will always be the worlds good and bad at time of troublesum, good deeds. Yanks are here

To stay. God bless america.

LandDestroyer
LandDestroyer

The NCC - so unreasonable for wanting a rational, pragmatic, transition for their own country instead of a nationwide bloodbath fueled by NATO and Al Qaeda flooding the country with foreign mercenaries and enough weapons to keep blood flowing for years - especially after the "success" in Libya which is still writhing conflict, genocide and under the fist of a new brutal dictatorship.

According to Seymour Hersh's 2007 article "The Redirection," the violent overthrow of Syria's government via US-Saudi-Israeli armed terrorists was a foregone conclusion. It's not that Assad wouldn't negotiate with the terrorists back in early 2011, it's that in early 2011, the terrorists already had their mind set on killing everyone in the process of establishing Saudi-inspired "Islamic" terror emirate. The NCC is the real opposition.

lapazjim
lapazjim

Of course Russia and yes even China are both going to see what they can salvage since Assad is most likely gone.Why the Syrians would even consider becoming allies is basically up to what the two countries offer them.What they do not look at is how Russia and China supported Assad's regime in more than 1 way.Most likely with weapons and vetoing a no fly zone in Syria that would have protected civilians.both countries want to maintain a strong foothold in the Middle East and possibly using Syria as a jumping point to other countries.Either way the UN and NATO should be weary of any moves made in Syria at this time.This is going to be a very vulnerable country.

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

@LandDestroyer  

"Zbigniew Brzezinski, like a man who has created the "al-Qaeda", instructed Ben Incense, said many times that international terrorism does not exist, there are "our" (American) fighters with bloody regimes, which supposedly stand for human rights, for freedom, and is "not ours" - they are fighting against us and stand for social justice. Since liberalism denies social justice, so those who struggle for it in the eyes of the people who run the world of known terrorists. Everyone else, who is struggling in the interests of the United States under any ideologies, including radical - it is freedom fighters. Only in the era of the Bush administration to justify the invasion of Afghanistan, Laden was declared an enemy, Brzezinski then indignant, saying, we are renting  own agents." http://imgur.com/eefmp

 Barack Obama is promoting its strategy of «leading from behind»

 George Friedman under the heading «The Emerging Doctrine of the United States» writes:

"United States has entered a period in which it must move from military domination to more subtle manipulation, and more important, allow events to take their course."

http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/emerging-doctrine-united-states

Friedman without a doubt calls the essence of American foreign policy in the current period - «subtle manipulation».

 This means that the United States will continue to Finance al-Qaeda to offset unwanted regimes, wreaking havoc in North Africa and the middle East. It is connected with the old phobias United States, which separates the ocean with other countries, American planners suffer from the «syndrome of the island of thinking». On the principle of - the more fire, the more witches dance. Let the whole world was to be burned in the Fire, but the United States hopes to sit out. In the twenty-first century sit out is not possible. The United States  cut a branch, where they are sitting.

 

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

@lapazjim  

In Moscow there is a delegation of the constructive Syrian opposition

Jamil: Solution Is through Dialogue without Preconditions and on Basis of Rejection of Foreign Intervention

Dec 14, 2012

Member of the Presidency of the opposition Popular Front for Change and Liberation, Qadri Jamil, stressed that the only solution to the crisis in Syria is the peaceful solution through dialogue.

http://www.sana-syria.com/eng/22/2012/12/14/457255.htm