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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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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