MOSCOW - Several months ago, questioning Moscow’s support for its long-time ally in Damascus was unthinkable. But after this week’s visit by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the dynamic could begin to shift, ever so slightly.
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Tillerson’s whistle-stop visit to Moscow included a two-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, as well as long sit-downs with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. On Wednesday evening, when speaking to journalists, Tillerson described the Syria crisis as if some backdoor breakthroughs had possibly been discussed. “Our view is that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end, and they have again brought this on themselves,” he said next to Lavrov. “We discussed our view that Russia, as their closest ally in the conflict, perhaps has the best means of helping Assad recognize this reality.” Tillerson added that Assad’s departure should be conducted “in an orderly way.”
Lavrov, a silver-tongued veteran diplomat for whom the inexperienced Tillerson is the fifth Secretary of State he has worked with, offered seemingly conflicting views on Assad. He both dismissed the idea of ousting a “particular personality” in Syria but also stressed that “we are not staking everything on a personality, on President Assad.” He went even further, suggesting that a new Syrian constitution be drawn up, and a more diverse government formed to match it.
His comments chimed with the shocking revelation last week from Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov that Moscow’s support for Assad was “not unconditional.” The Kremlin’s support for Syria goes back decades (and it has not forgotten Assad’s refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008), but its economy has been battered by low oil prices and U.S. sanctions in response to its involvement in Ukraine’s war and the annexation of Crimea.
Moscow now finds itself in a curious position. It is unlikely to give up on its commitment to the region – and therefore lose face in a part of the world it knows well – but it does appear to be increasingly fed up with Assad. The chemical weapons attack in early April, which the West blames on Assad and the Syrian regime blames on the rebels, further deteriorated Russian-U.S. ties, and brought Russia and the West to the brink of another crisis (the U.K.’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson canceled his trip to Russia as a result of the chemical weapons attack). It also sparked Washington’s first direct military involvement in Syria, during which it fired 59 Tomahawk missiles on Shayrat air base last week, where both Syria and Russia keep planes. On Thursday, Assad told AFP that the claim that his government used chemical weapons is “100 percent fabrication.”
“If I were Putin, I would be livid with Assad for giving the Americans the excuse to go in,” said Amr Al-Azm, a member of the Syrian opposition and a professor of history at Shawnee State University in Ohio, “but being angry with him and walking out on Assad are two different things.”
Lavrov has asked for an independent investigation into the sarin gas attack that killed at least 90 people in Idlib province. For now, there is no real smoking gun. But if one that proves beyond doubt that Assad’s regime committed the attack is found, Russia will have cornered itself and will most likely need to act. “Are the Russians willing to make that sacrifice? Acting means either telling Assad they are withdrawing support or helping the opposition,” Al-Azm said, adding that the latter was out of the question. Since Syria’s civil war started six years ago, Moscow has provided refuge to several former members of Assad’s government, and is home to a small but lively pro-regime Syrian community. Some are given Russian visas and a right to stay; others live within a gray area without official status. (In contrast, Russia has taken in very few Syrian refugees, a move that continues to attract scorn from human rights groups.)
Thursday’s admission by the Pentagon that the U.S.-backed coalition in Syria had mistakenly killed 18 members of a militia it supports was widely reported across Russian state media. Throughout Moscow’s military involvement in the Syrian conflict, Russia has taken to highlighting incompetent U.S. actions in the Middle East, often holding up the current situation in Iraq as an example of the failures of American democracy.
It is worth noting that no Syria deals or steps forward can be made without the support of the region’s main actors: namely Iran, the Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Moscow counts only two of them as allies and the others as mixed – and often as foes.
This weekend Lavrov will host Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, whom he regularly speaks with by telephone. Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Muallem will join them in a meeting Moscow has said will focus on coordinated trilateral efforts for a political settlement in Syria. But bringing all parties to the table – both Assad’s regime and the opposition – is a tall order and likely to be a long process. The country itself has become highly fractured and experts say it lacks little cohesive structure outside of Damascus. Putin’s leverage over Assad may not even be what he had at the beginning of Russia’s entrance into the conflict, and perhaps does not even amount to much now. This means Moscow may have aligned itself with players who have other agendas to pursue in Syria.
“If Putin is unhappy finding himself in the company with Iran and Hezbollah, this still doesn't mean that he may concede - he never does when there's public pressure,” said Maria Lipman, a political analyst in Moscow and editor-in-chief of Counterpoint Journal, published by George Washington University. “Neither is a reliable partner.”