Moscow • Russia’s attempt to backpedal after a top diplomat said Syrian President Bashar Assad is losing control of his country reflects the dilemma Moscow faces as opposition fighters gain ground.
Throughout the Syrian crisis, Russia has tried to walk a fine line — eschewing statements of outright support for Assad while blocking international attempts either to pressure him to stop the fighting or to leave power altogether.
Instead, Russia has insisted that negotiations are the only way to resolve the crisis and has portrayed itself as a principled opponent of foreign intervention.
The strategy, however, has led some to view Moscow’s stance as a disingenuous attempt to prop up a dictator in a country where activists say more than 40,000 people have been killed since March 2011.
As the fighting in Syria intensified over recent months, Russian officials have held back from public assessments of whether Assad’s regime would survive. But on Thursday, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov was quoted by major Russian news agencies as saying "there is a trend for the government to progressively lose control over an increasing part of the territory" and "an opposition victory can’t be excluded."
On Friday, the Foreign Ministry issued a convoluted denial, saying its top envoy for Syria was merely characterizing the opinion of the Syrian opposition rather than stating Russia’s view.
"In that context, Bogdanov again confirmed Russia’s principled stance that a political settlement in Syria has no alternative," ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in a statement.
While Bogdanov’s statement seemed to signal Russia’s attempt to begin positioning itself for Assad’s eventual defeat, the Foreign Ministry’s backtracking clearly indicated that Moscow has no intention yet of pulling away from its Mideast ally.
This was reinforced by Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil, who was in Moscow on Friday to meet with Bogdanov and his boss, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
"There have been no changes in Russia’s position," Jamil told journalists after the meeting. "Russia stands for dialogue and against foreign interference."
Facing further questions Friday about Bogdanov’s statement, Lukashevich insisted there had been no shift in the Russian position on Syria. He said Moscow is continuing to call for a political dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition on the basis of the peace plan agreed upon at an international conference in June.
"Our only goal is to end the violence in Syria as quickly as possible, start a dialogue between the Syrians, between the government and the opposition, and work out a formula for advancing a political process," Lukashevich said. "There hasn’t been and there won’t be any retraction from our principled line on the Syrian affairs."
Georgy Mirsky, a leading Mideast expert with the Institute for World Economy and International Relations, a top foreign policy think tank supported by the Russian government, said Bogdanov may have slipped up.
"Bogdanov went very far, and the question is whether he coordinated his statement with Lavrov," the analyst said. "If he didn’t, he may have gotten himself in trouble."
Mirsky said it would be difficult for Russian President Vladimir Putin to dump Assad.
"It would amount to a loss of face, look like caving in to Western pressure. That’s not in his character," Mirsky said. "Russia is going to lose Syria anyway. But if it’s lost as a result of Assad’s ouster or killing or a coup by his own men, it wouldn’t look like Putin’s defeat. But he would look very bad indeed if even he doesn’t wait for Bashar Assad to go away."
The U.S. quickly commended Russia on Thursday for "waking up to the reality" by acknowledging the Syrian regime’s impending fall, but Lukashevich lashed back, saying that "we haven’t fallen asleep."
"We haven’t changed our position and we won’t," he said.
Russia maintains a naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus, the only such outpost outside the ex-Soviet Union serving Russian navy ships in the Mediterranean and hosting an unspecified number of military personnel. Russia also has an unspecified number of military advisers teaching Syrians how to use Russian weapons, which make up the bulk of Syria’s arsenals.
Syria is Russia’s last remaining ally in the Middle East and has been a major customer of Soviet and Russian weapons industries for the last four decades, acquiring billions of dollars’ worth of combat jets, helicopters, missiles, armored vehicles and other military gear.
Russia has joined with China at the U.N. Security Council to veto three resolutions that would have imposed sanctions on Assad’s regime over its bloody crackdown on the uprising that began in March 2011. Moscow also has continued to provide the Syrian government with weapons despite strong international protests.
Asked if Beijing also foresees Assad’s demise and whether it plans to evacuate its citizens in Syria, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said it would take unspecified steps to protect Chinese nationals and appealed anew for a cease-fire and for a negotiated political transition.
"China is deeply worried about the continuing violent conflict in Syria and always believes that a diplomatic settlement to the Syrian issue is the only way out and also serves the shared interest of the international community," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a daily media briefing.
On Friday, the Pentagon announced it will send two batteries of Patriot missiles and 400 troops to Turkey as part of a NATO force to protect Turkish territory from potential Syrian missile attacks.
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