In the clearest indication to date that Russia may be preparing for a Syria without President Bashar al-Assad, the country’s deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov argued on Thursday that “it is impossible to exclude a victory of the Syrian opposition.”
Just last week, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, after meeting with his American counterpart Hillary Clinton, insisted that the Kremlin was not planning for Assad’s fall from power. “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 country “does not intend to persuade the Syrian leader to leave his post voluntarily.” Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev had criticized Western countries a week earlier, telling French reporters, “not a single state, not a single government should undertake any action directed at the forcible replacement of an acting government in any other country.”
However, 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.”
While it doesn’t contradict Lavrov’s previous statement, Bogdanov’s suggests that Russia must be preparing for the eventuality of regime change, including the evacuation of thousands of nationals from the country which it considers its only ally in the Middle East.
Russia has blocked international efforts to influence the outcome of Syria’s nearly two-year old civil war in the United Nations Security Council, citing last year’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 there to displace the regime of Muammar al-Gaddafi, another Russian ally.
The Russians have a naval facility in Syria at Tartus and fear that the removal of Assad will embolden Muslim separatists in its own Caucuses frontier region. The European Union and the United States have nevertheless imposed oil and weapons sanctions on the Ba’athist regime which they suspect Russia of circumventing. 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 argues before promising: “We would cease any supplies only in the event of international sanctions.”
Russia previously suspended weapons sales to Iran when United Nations sanctions prohibited them. But with the threat of a Russian veto in the Security Council, similar sanctions are unlikely to be enacted against Syria.