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.

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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?