Members of the Free Syrian Army this week.
Free Syrian Army members raising their fists during combat training at Sarmada near Idlib in Syria this week. Photo by Reuters
Text size

Is Russia finally beginning to distance itself from the Assad regime? This week, we witnessed what seemed like the first signs of such a move, probably reflecting Moscow's understanding that Syrian President Bashar Assad will eventually be ousted.

For some time now Russian leaders have been pressured by Arab states to halt all aid to the current regime. The Al-Jazeera media outlet - whose owners, the royal family of Qatar lead the call for military intervention - continues to criticize the Russian position. Russian flags have been set ablaze in Jordan and Egypt, during demonstrations in support of the Syrian opposition, replacing the familiar sights of U.S. or Israeli flags.

The United States has also taken to voicing its grievances with Russia. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently declared at the Friends of Syria Conference that Russia's support of Syria is deplorable, adding that the Russians don't "believe they are paying any price at all, nothing at all, for standing with [the] Assad regime."

This week Russia announced it was sending warships - no less than 11 according to one report - to the Port of Tartous in northern Syria, where the Russians own several docks. Last month a few warships docked at Tartous, including an airplane carrier, but this time it seems like a larger maneuver. One explanation of the move was that the ships were sent to protect Russian citizens in Syria.

Thousands of Russian experts reside in Syria. Some work on civilian projects, while others advise the Syrian army on the use of up to date technology and intelligence equipment. Surprisingly, the Moscow-based Russian Arab-speaking TV Station, Russia Today, declared "there are no more Russian military advisors in Syria."

The station is an official mouthpiece of the Russian government (which operates a similar English-speaking station). As far as one can tell, the report itself is false, but may indicate first preparations for evacuation, perhaps out of fear for the safety of Russian advisors, and perhaps because of the need to downgrade relations with the Assad regime.

Meanwhile, a delegation of the Syrian opposition visited Moscow and met with President Vladimir Putin, a visit that coincided with a Russian announcement that it was halting a supply of Yak-130 jet trainers to Syria. Several months ago, Russia declared it would supply the planes as planned, adding that these are training planes with no offensive capabilities. Still, Arab and Western states argued that Assad loyalists could arm the aircrafts and use them to attack pro-opposition civilian neighborhoods. Russian has now reneged on that promise, despite saying that it would continue to supply Assad with defensive weapons such as anti-aircraft systems.

Seen as a whole, these signs, all from the past few days, might indicate an erosion of Russian support. Still, its too early too call. As far as Assad himself is concerned the possible Russian disengagement is yet another ominous sign. The president was helpless to prevent the defection and disappearance of his childhood friend, General Manaf Tlass (son of former Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass), and the resignation of Syrian ambassador to Iraq, Nawaf Fares, who announced he was joining the opposition and requested political asylum in Qatar. Nonetheless, the international community is still hesitant as to military intervention, a position also caused by the severe division among opposition groups, which fail to present a united front against Assad.

Thursday afternoon over 200 people were reportedly killed in clashes between the army and rebels in Syria, most of them civilians. Mortar and artillery fire exchanges took place in Damascus' suburbs. Meanwhile, there are more reports of loyalists raping women as punishment for their support of the rebels.

The Syrian army on Thursday staged a huge artillery and rocket exercise, that was seen in the West as a demonstration of power. Syrian TV broadcast, for the first time, launching of M-600 rockets. These are new, precise rockets, also known to be in the hands of Hezbollah. The TV also broadcast launching of long-range Scud missiles and 302-mm rockets. In case of a war with Israel, all these might be launched at Israeli civilians, but the power display yesterday was mainly aimed at the international community, part of an effort to help avert military intervention.