While Ally Assad Loses Power, Moscow Keeping Distance

Now that the rebellion in Syria is developing into a civil war and it's clear that Assad's rule will end, Nadav Eyal writes that Russia knows it's on the wrong side of history. The Alawite-Iran-Hezbollah axis is not a strategic ally for Moscow anymore, especially when it appears that its main geographic component, Syria, is about to fall. 

al-monitor Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) speaks with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad during their meeting in Moscow's Kremlin, January 25, 2005. Photo by REUTERS/Itar Tass.

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rebellion, strategic, us, syria, russia, putin, libya, iran, intervention, hezbollah, civil war, assad, alawite

Oct 21, 2013

A few months ago, a high-placed Western source met with the current reigning czar sometimes called the “President of Russia” — Vladimir Putin. Jerusalem received a detailed report of the talk that dealt with the slaughter taking place in Syria. Putin was resolved and crystal-clear: We won’t allow the Americans to do to us in Syria what they did in Libya, he said. There, we handed them a Security Council resolution for a no-fly zone on a silver platter, and somehow they twisted that into a NATO military attack and elimination of Gaddafi’s regime. Worst of all, they eliminated any foothold we have in Libyan interests. The Western source suspected that Putin was referring to Libya’s tremendous reserves of oil and natural gas, the kind of reserves that would whet the appetite of any large country and certainly of Russia. Putin’s frustration was clear; he had allowed a limited, restricted operation in Libya, and as a result he lost a zone of influence. Syria won’t be a second Libya, Putin vowed.

However, many days have passed since then and rivers of blood continue to flow in Syria. Just as the United States was forced to renounce Mubarak’s regime — not because of the Egyptian yearning for democracy, but because of Egyptian weakness — so the Russians are beginning to feel that the tides are beginning to turn. The more that the Syrian revolt develops into a civil war, the more that Assad’s regime emerges as futile as it is ruthless, and the more that the Russians begin to feel that they are on the wrong side of history. In a region with a clear Sunni majority, they put their faith in a small, vulnerable sect — the Alawites — whose rule is being undermined by Syria. The Alawite-Iranian-Hezbollah axis is not exactly strategic support for Moscow, especially when it seems that its central geographic segment — Syria — is about to be overthrown.

There are voices in Moscow who warn that should Assad fall while Russia is still its main ally, that could lead to the eradication of the little strength remaining to the veteran superpower in the region. The result: Putin has recently been coordinating positions less and less with the Syrians, at least when compared to the past. Even when Damascus asks for more weapons of the types that are likely to arouse Western ire, Moscow does not answer.

On the other hand, should Russia completely renounce and abandon the Assad family and their satellites, that could lead to the regional conclusion that the Russians cannot or do not want to stand by their allies. On the background of this dilemma — the need to be on the winning side, yet retain trust as components of strategic power — the Russians and Americans are working extensively on a compromise.

The same Western source who met with Putin a few months ago heard intimations from him about a possible compromise. Putin ostensibly hinted: We won’t agree to talk about resolutions regarding Syria until it is decided how the new Syria will look. In other words, the Yemeni option — the ouster of the ruling president and perhaps his close family, but the retaining of the basic hubs of power. In the Yemeni instance, this was a convenient solution for the Americans. In the Syrian instance, it will be good for Moscow.

The New York Times reported on Sunday that negotiations between Obama and Putin on this issue have reached an advanced stage. A Russian ultimatum to the Syrian government warning of the Russian backing of a Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force may well galvanize circles within the regime, even perhaps within the Alawite sect, to destroy Assad’s dynasty. In fact, this may be the hope.

In the big picture, however, there is something eerily familiar about these discussions. The fate of historical Syria was determined in the past by a French-British agreement, and now the Americans and Russians are coming to divide the spoils between them. The Iraqi regime was felled by American bayonets, and Gaddafi probably wouldn’t have fallen without NATO. The Arab Spring is also the spring for games of the veteran superpowers. If brutality won’t decide the future of Damascus, then it will be the great game of Moscow and Washington that will draw the map. 

Nadav Eyal is the international news editor of Channel 10 in Israel. 

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