Russia and Syria’s Assad: The End of the Affair?
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.”
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.