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It seems that after months of intransigence Moscow is toughening its stance against Syria. After a top military official declared earlier this week that Russia would discontinue future arms shipments to the embattled Bashar al-Assad regime, a flurry of diplomacy descended upon Moscow as several Syrian opposition leaders arrived in the capital to discuss their troubled country’s future. But the Kremlin’s invitation to dialogue and ostensible accommodation, experts say, is merely meant to nurture its own image as a major player in the conflict.
July is the 16th month of steady fighting since the anti-Assad uprising first began. In the past year and a half, the conflict – by most accounts a full-fledged civil war by now – has taken around 16,000 lives, most of them civilian. Since the beginning, Russia has garnered international scorn for its blocking, along with China, of key UN Security Council resolutions, as well as its adamancy against any meaningful international intervention into the conflict. A foreign intervention, the Russian narrative goes, amounts to foreign interference in the domestic affairs of another sovereign country.
Recent months, however, have given way to some minor concessions – mixed with characteristic stubbornness. It began in March, when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov chided the Assad regime for failing to do its part in curtailing the violence. Then, around the same time, Moscow agreed to UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s carefully crafted peace plan, which itself was recognized as a big step for the Assad ally. The UN-brokered ceasefire, meanwhile, has since fallen apart amidst an even greater escalation of violence on the ground in Syria. Yet Moscow has also stood firm – until recently – on its arms shipment to Syria, and has continued locking horns over how to approach the Syrian issue with the United States, which has consistently harangued Russia about its arms trade.
But as the crisis deepens Russia starts sending clearer signals that it might indeed be ready to finally harden its stance against Assad – permanently. On Monday, Vyacheslav Dzerkaln, deputy head of the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, shocked many observers when he announced that Russia would discontinue all new weapons shipments to Syria, citing the dangerous and unstable environment there. Even more eye-opening were the invitations extended to Syrian anti-Assad figures, whom Moscow had earlier labeled as a largely unknown quantity – and terrorists, even – bent on destabilizing the situation.
Throughout the rest of the week Syrian opposition figures arrived separately in Moscow to discuss an end to the violence and a post-Assad Syria with Russian officials. Lavrov met both key opposition leader Michel Kilo and Syrian National Council Head Abdulbaset Seida. Seida attempted to convince Russia to drop its support for Assad, while claiming that the unfolding drama in Syria is “not disagreement between the opposition and the government, but a revolution," according to an AFP report. His comments, which also touched on the impossibility of direct dialogue with the Assad regime, were met with restraint from Lavrov, who pressed Seida on the possibility of a united opposition movement in Syria geared toward talks with the Syria government.
Still, however, the pattern of dialogue and openness between Moscow and Syrian opposition leaders is somewhat of a landmark achievement, considering Russia’s long-stubborn stance on the situation. But analysts said it’s not about Russia’s growing wariness of supporting Assad or its discomfort with international criticism – but about creating the image of a major irreplaceable broker in the conflict. “In this situation, having contacts with the Syrian opposition adds credibility to the Russian position, saying ‘we’re not going to support one side in the civil war, we’re looking for a solution, and solution means dialogue and compromises,’” said foreign policy analyst Pavel Baev of the Peace Research Institute of Oslo.
Baev added that Turkey’s increased activity in the Syrian crisis has also played a key role for Moscow: “This is a country with which Moscow really wants to have a strategic partnership,” he said. After Turkey was drawn into the conflict when Syrian anti-aircraft defenses downed a Turkish jet over disputed waters, it was a reality check, Baev said, for Moscow to take into account Turkey’s increasingly serious, anti-Assad position on the conflict. “The thinking goes that if Turkey moves seriously along this line, it means Assad, this way or that way, will have to give way,” he said. “And nobody wants to be on the side of the loser.”
But there are also Russia’s aspirations of remaining a major global player militarily, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere. While analysts have long questioned Russia’s clout in the region, especially after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, and given the seemingly doomed Syrian regime, it appears that Russia wants to prove that it still packs a punch. Moscow signaled as much when it dispatched a small fleet of warships, along with marines and amphibious landing vehicles, this week to the Mediterranean Sea, some of which were bound for the Syrian port of Tartus.
Many experts doubt, however, that Russia can realistically either continue backing Assad or retain its privileged military and strategic foothold in the Middle East. According to Alexei Malashenko, an expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center, Moscow is simply preparing for the inevitable. “Russia understands that Assad’s days are numbered because of the civil war and his steady loss of support,” he told Bloomberg BusinessWeek. “Its main concern is to keep what it can of its influence and preserve face.”
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