This week’s horrific violence in Syria may have nudged Russia a little bit closer to opposing the Bashar al-Assad regime’s continued claim to power there, according to analysts who have recently visited Russia.
Last week’s massacre in Houla, which resulted in the deaths of 108 people, mostly children, has made the Russians “uncomfortable” with what is happening in Syria and is pushing them “toward the ranks of those who are opposing” the Assad government, according to Robert Malley, the program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group.
Russia’s vote at the Security Council last weekend, condemning the killings, marks a slight shift in Moscow’s position on Syria, which up until this week has been seen as a firm supporter of Assad, Malley said.
One well-connected Russia analyst says government officials “understand Assad is a liability” and “would welcome for him to go.”
“A lot of people refer to him [Assad] as a Russian ally, but the truth is that they [the Russians] increasingly feel he’s an embarrassment,” said Dimitri Simes, president of the Center for the National Interest, a Washington-based think tank.
In addition to the regime’s brutal behavior since the uprising began, the Syrian government has not paid the Russians for the arms and fuel they have supplied in the past eight months, causing the Kremlin to view the Assad regime as “a burden,” Simes said. He just returned from a trip to Russia where he met a number of senior Russian officials.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday that his nation does not support any side in the Syrian conflict and rejected charges it was shipping weapons to Damascus “that could be used in a civil conflict.”
“Do they [the Russians] feel strongly that they want to keep Assad in power?” Simes said. “The answer is definitely not. But then the question is, ‘How do you get rid of him?'”
This past week there were a number of reports about the Obama administration’s desire to follow in Syria a formula pursued earlier this year in Yemen, in which a deal between the Syrian government and opposition would result in Assad stepping aside.
According to Simes, the American government is “talking about the Yemeni model [to the Russians] and trying to present it in the most moderate way possible to make it acceptable to the Russians. But when the Russian government asks for the specifics,” they become very uncomfortable in hearing all that the Yemeni power handover involved.
“The Obama administration does not mind continuing Russian influence [in Syria], but they would like to get rid of the Iranian influence,” Simes said. The White House is seeking “something against Hezbollah as part of that package,” he said.
This causes the Russians concern, Simes said. From Moscow’s perspective, it is “being offered an opportunity to be part of a U.S.-sponsored regime change” that “would look nice in the beginning, but would evolve in the direction where Moscow’s prestige and … interests would not be observed,” he said.
Putin is determined not to allow what happened in Libya to take place in Syria, Simes said. The Russian leader does not want his nation to appear to be a declining power, one that is not in the position of protecting its client states — or even trying to.
Another major factor weighing on Putin’s mind, according to Simes, is the fate of the Christian minorities in Syria. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, visited Damascus last November and met with Assad. During the trip, a number of local Christians told the religious leader that if the Syrian opposition won, there would be a massacre, according to Simes. Kirill, who is very influential in Russia, then returned home and met with Putin. He has since made a number of public statements about the potential for this type of bloodbath.
The potential fate of Syrian Christians “is not a minor image problem for Putin,” Simes said, “because a lot of Russian nationalists criticize” the Kremlin’s foreign policy “for surrendering the interests of ethnic Russians in the post-Soviet states and the rights of Christians.”