Media reports that the government in Damascus may fall, combined with changing Russian rhetoric and signs of high-level diplomatic meetings between Russia and the U.S. on Syria, could augur a major foreign policy change for Moscow.
An anti-Syrian government protester waves the Syrian revolutionary flag, as she shouts slogans against the Syrian President Bashar Assad, during a protest to mark the 4th anniversary of the Syrian uprising, at the Martyrs square in downtown Beirut, Lebanon. Photo: AP
Recent media coverage of the ongoing civil war in Syria has been marked by mixed reports about the military successes of the government forces. That, in turn, is leading to increased concerns that the government in Damascus may fall, and that Russia may already be altering its policy stance on Syria in advance of such an event.
While some have suggested that Syrian President Bashar Assad is poised to win the war against the rebels while the U.S.-led coalition takes on the major burden of dealing with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) through air strikes, others report that Assad has suffered a string of defeats, including from rebels in Al-Sughour, a town in Northwestern Syria, and from Islamic State (ISIS) in Palmira.
Reports of these military setbacks have prompted countless media speculation that the government in Damascus may fall soon. Some media outlets took the story as far as to suggest that Russia, a long-time backer of the Assad regime, might in fact make a U-turn on Damascus and give up on supporting Assad.
Connecting the dots on recent Russian moves in Syria
Newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, for instance, has reported that for three consecutive months Russia has been reducing its diplomatic staff in Damascus, which was interpreted as a sign that Moscow is preparing for Assad’s defeat.
“Moscow had also recently transferred around 100 senior diplomatic and technical officials working in Syria back to Russia,” the Saudi-backed, London-based publication quoted a Western diplomatic source as saying.
The paper said that a group of Russian diplomats and their families boarded a Moscow-bound plane in the coastal city of Latakia several days ago.
The paper also noted that Russia has stopped honoring its agreement with Damascus to maintain the SU-22 and SU-24 fighter jets that constitute the bulk of the Syrian Arab Air Force, which has been key to the fight against the rebels.
Other sources suggest that Russia has significantly changed the tone of its Syria rhetoric during talks with the Americans.
Pan-Arab Al Hayat paper has recently quoted its diplomatic sources as saying that Moscow may be discussing specific terms for Assad’s departure and even the names of military and political officials that would oversee the transition period in Syria.
None of these reports can be independently verified, but it does seem that Moscow’s position on Syria is in fact changing. The changes, however, seem to be more subtle than the anti-Assad coalition imagines.
The US and Russia could be hammering out a common approach on Syria
The unofficial consultations between the Assad government and Syria’s internal opposition that took place in Moscow in April did not result in a breakthrough.
The seemingly successful first round of consultations in January was even welcomed by Washington, which is why stakes for Russia were high and disappointment bitter when the second round yielded no positive result.
It looks like both Moscow and Washington are beginning to realize that their efforts to tilt the balance in the Syrian war have not come to fruition. Despite the Cold War-like atmosphere in Russia-U.S. relations, the two seem to have engaged in active diplomacy over a number of issues, including Syria, albeit behind the scenes.
In a recent interview with the Russian TV Channel Dozhd, Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson, said that 2014 saw an unprecedented intensification of contacts between American and Russian diplomats.
Of particular importance is U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Sochi in mid-May where the Secretary of State met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Ukraine topped Kerry’s agenda in Russia but it turns out the visit was also necessary to prepare another high-profile meeting several days later.
On May 18, U.S. Special Envoy for Syria Daniel Rubinstein traveled to Moscow and met with Putin’s Middle East envoy Mikhail Bogdanov, who is essentially a key person in Russia’s Syria policy.
It remains unknown what the two officials discussed off the record but the fact that the Syria policy chiefs from Russia and the U.S. sat one-on-one and talked Syria is significant in itself.
Following this meeting, however, the Russian authorities said that Moscow’s and Washington’s positions on Syria are getting closer.
Kazakhstan as a diplomatic proxy for Russia in Syrian talks
The most significant event that may shed light on Moscow’s new strategy towards Syria took place outside Russia. In late May, some 30 Syrian opposition delegates gathered in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, for reconciliation talks.
Most media outlets have interpreted this conference as Astana’s attempt to position itself as an independent arbitrator between the regime and the opposition, yet the talks would not have happened without Russia’s full approval.
In fact, it was likely the Russian government that proposed to move the talks from the “Moscow platform” to the “Astana platform” to boost their credibility. Moscow has long been seen as a major ally of Assad, which is why its attempts to bring the opposition and the government to the negotiating table were met with suspicion both in the West and the Middle East.
Kazakhstan is a secular country with a Muslim majority that is firmly in the Russian sphere of influence, so Moscow thought that Astana could play a major role in Syria talks as a Russian diplomatic proxy.
A Russian government source has confirmed off-the-record that a small diplomatic delegation from Russia was also present in Astana during the Syrian opposition talks.
Coordination with Moscow is likely happening through Kassis, who visited Moscow in January and April 2015 and sent a letter to Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev asking him to host the Syrian opposition. Kassis has been in touch with the Russian authorities for a while now and more recently met with Bogdanov in Moscow to discuss the possibility of a second meeting in Astana.
One of the goals of this new policy is to reconcile with the Gulf monarchies, who have continuously criticized Moscow, Assad’s ally, for its attempts to play a role of a mediator in this crisis. Moscow has sought to mend ties with the Gulf ever since the crisis over Ukraine broke out in Russia-West relations and the Kremlin decided to make a political pivot to Asia.
The Russia-initiated talks earlier this year were ineffective in bridging the differences between Assad and the opposition, yet their negative impact on Russia-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) relations was enormous. Since the “Moscow platform” is unacceptable for too many parties and while the world continues to look for a solution for Syria, Russia doesn’t want to be left out. So Astana hosting the opposition should be interpreted as a continuation of Moscow’s diplomatic efforts, albeit through a proxy.
Putin’s desire to reconcile with the GCC (a union of all Arab states of the Gulf, except for Iraq) is all the more evident because, following the Kazakhstan talks, Russian diplomats met with Saudi and Emirati officials.
In late May, Bogdanov traveled to Saudi Arabia where he was welcomed by King Salman, Crown Prince Mohammed and Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir, while Lavrov hosted UAE’s Foreign Minister Abdullah Al Nahyan in Moscow.
The fact that these high-profile meetings took place right after the Astana talks means that Russia’s attempts to demonstratively distance itself from the Assad regime had their effect.
However, suggesting that Moscow has decided to completely abandon the Assad regime is far-fetched and premature. Moscow has invested too much in supporting the Syrian government through aid, weapons and diplomatic efforts that cost Russia dearly.
Moscow is still convinced that the West and the GCC will end up accepting Assad once current airstrikes against ISIS prove to be ineffective and the need for a joint ground operation becomes apparent.
Until then, Moscow is likely to keep its ties with the Syrian government low-key, while waiting to be asked to revitalize ties with Damascus and bring Assad to the negotiating table.