Analysis

Russia Admits Syria’s Assad May Be Losing Control

Russia doesn’t exclude a rebel victory in Syria, so it has to plan for a future without Assad.

William Hague and Sergei Lavrov, the foreign ministers of the United Kingdom and Russia, deliver a joint press conference in London, England, February 15, 2011
William Hague and Sergei Lavrov, the foreign ministers of the United Kingdom and Russia, deliver a joint press conference in London, England, February 15, 2011 (FCO)

In the clearest indication yet that Russia may be preparing for a Syria without Bashar al-Assad, the country’s deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, has argued that “it is impossible to exclude a victory of the Syrian opposition.”

Just last week, his boss, Sergei Lavrov — after meeting with his American counterpart, Hillary Clinton — insisted that Moscow was not planning for Assad’s fall.

“Our position on Syria is well known,” he said. Reiterating the line that Russian officials have used repeatedly, Lavrov argued, “Moscow does not stick to Assad or to some other figure on the Syrian political scene.”

Russian newspaper Kommersant reported two days later that the Kremlin “does not intend to persuade the Syrian leader to leave his post voluntarily.”

Regime change

But, according to the Russian news service Interfax, Bogdanov said,

We must look squarely at the facts and the trend now suggests that the regime and the government in Syria are losing more and more control and more and more territory.

That doesn’t contradict Lavrov, but it does suggest that Russia is at least thinking about regime change, which may necessitate the evacuation of thousands of Russian nationals from Syria.

Cautionary tale

Russia has blocked international efforts to influence the outcome of Syria’s civil war, citing the West’s intervention in Libya as a cautionary tale.

As Lavrov put it, “Our NATO colleagues grossly distorted the mandate granted to them by a UN Security Council resolution … and launched a fight against the existing power.”

NATO’s mandate was to protect Libyan civilians, but it ultimately enabled the rebels to displace Muammar al-Gaddafi, another Russian ally.

Sanctions

The Russians have a naval facility in Syria and fear that the removal of Assad might embolden Muslim separatists in their own Caucuses frontier region.

The European Union and United States have nevertheless imposed oil and weapons sanctions on the Ba’athist regime, which they suspect Russia of circumventing.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said last month that his country is merely honoring existing contracts. “We don’t know how long a given political regime will exist,” he argued before promising: “We would cease any supplies only in the event of international sanctions.”

Russia previously complied with an embargo against Iran. But with the threat of a Russian veto in the Security Council, similar sanctions are unlikely to be taken against Syria.