At the end of last week the head of the Arab League warned that he feared a possible civil war following the disastrous visit of the Arab League Monitoring Mission, which witnessed increased violence and no efforts by Assad to implement the Arab League initiative. US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice stated that during the Arab League mission an average of 40 people were killed per day -- higher than before the visit. Assad remains defiant, vowing to vanquish all “foreign conspirators” plotting to end his rule.
Since the uprisings began, some 10 months ago, Russia has taken a different position from the West initially claiming that the international community should support national dialogue (as it did in Bahrain and Yemen) rather than having its mind set on ousting Assad. Moscow has continued to support Assad, been opposed to military intervention and enforced regime change, been against any types of sanctions and vetoed, together with China in the UN Security Council, a European-drafted resolution that would have condemned Syria’s crackdown on anti-government protests. Russia was also the only country that complained about the decision of the EU to place sanctions on Syrian oil exports. Russia has energy projects to protect in Syria.
Russia and Syria have been allies for a long time, with Syria providing Russia with a close military ally in the heart of the Arab world since Soviet times. Moreover, they have shared a similar interest in counter-balancing US influence both globally and in the region as well as in arms deals. Military cooperation between the two started in 1971 and President Assad has been a major importer of Russian arms, with Syria reportedly purchasing some 10 percent of Russia’s annual arms for around $1billion. With the end of the Gadaffi regime in Libya, Russian arms dealers apparently lost around $4 billion in contracts. Also suffering from the global economic crisis, Moscow does not want a repeat performance in Syria. Russia also has a naval base in the Syrian Port of Tartous, with around 600 soldiers and technical staff. Russia has been criticized for continuing to supply arms to Syria. At the end of last week a Russian ship carrying some 60 tons of ammunition arrived in Syria although according to Russian sources these ammunitions were for the sole use of the Russian military stationed there and not for the Assad regime. Meanwhile, Russian UN officials have also been speculating that the international community -- in particular NATO -- is apparently preparing to launch a military attack on Syria, which will be led by Turkey. This has been outrightly denied.
Because of their vested interests Russia has every reason to support the status quo, but only while President Assad remains a feasible option. However, with the death toll rising and the eventual fall of Assad -- one way or another -- seemingly an eventual inevitability Moscow is probably realizing that it may have to abandon its long-time friend. Hence, it has begun to hedge its bets.
While Russia is still apparently backing Assad, Moscow has also engaged with the Syrian opposition in September and November and is due to have another round of talks with them, including with the head of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), Burhan Ghalioun, at the end of January. At the meeting in November, Ghalioun promised that Russian interests in Syria would be guaranteed even with the fall of Assad. Russia seems to be pushing its role as a “peacemaker,” particularly now that Turkey has become one of the biggest critics of Assad.
In December, Russia circulated a draft resolution to the UN Security Council. However, this draft contained a number of points that the other members could not accept, insisting on changes, including a paragraph that mentions “violence stemming from the extremist opposition.” Russia is due to submit a new, revised text once it has seen the report of the Arab League mission, which is due to be released on Jan. 19. It would therefore seem that at the next meeting of the UN Security Council in February -- the revised text will be discussed. Russia probably believes that the more concerned the West becomes about the situation in Syria, the more opportunity there could be for Russia to use it as leverage to obtain something in return, including in other areas of interest to Moscow.
It seems that Russia may be “creeping” towards a change of strategy. There is every possibility that eventually the West will act, with or without Russian agreement, which could leave Moscow in an extremely difficult situation. Therefore, the UN meeting could prove to be a defining moment and perhaps result in a Russian “shift.”