Russian foreign minister, spy chief to hold talks with Syria’s Assad
MUNICH/MOSCOW RUSSIA may be seeking a “controlled demolition” of Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s rule to save its sole major foothold in the Arab world against Western rivals when its foreign minister and spy chief hold rare talks in Damascus this week.
Moscow announced the high-stakes mission hours on Saturday hours before Russia and China, in a move that outraged much of the world and Syria’s opposition, vetoed a UN Security Council resolution meant to halt Assad’s bloody crackdown on a popular revolt by backing an Arab League plan urging him to step down.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he would travel to Syria on Tuesday along with Foreign Intelligence Service Director Mikhail Fradkov for talks with Assad.
Lavrov revealed nothing about their purpose, but a Foreign Ministry statement on Sunday indicated he and Fradkov would at least press Assad, who has ruled out resigning and rejected his opponents as “terrorists”, to make compromises.
President Dmitry Medvedev ordered the mission, it said, because Russia “firmly intends to seek the swiftest stabilisation of the situation in Syria on the basis of the swiftest implementation of democratic reforms whose time has come.” After a veto that angered the West and deepened the resolve of Assad’s foes, Russia faces a daunting task: how to leverage longstanding ties with an embattled Syrian leader into traction firm enough to keep Russia from losing its most solid arena of influence in the Middle East.
Moscow could be tempted to play for time by seeking to shore up Assad, whose government has billions of dollars worth of contracts for Russian arms and hosts a naval maintenance and supply facility on its Mediterranean coast that is Russia’s only military base outside the former Soviet Union.
But many analysts say Moscow’s veto was driven less by love for Assad or hope of a return to Syria’s pre-conflict status quo than by Prime Minister Putin’s desire to show - as he seeks a six-year term in a March presidential vote - that he will defy Western efforts to impose political change on sovereign states in regions of big power competition.
“Russia’s overwhelming objective is to salvage something from the wreckage of the Assad regime and contain Western influence in its most important Arab ally,” said Shashank Joshi, an associate fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, a military thinktank.
With Assad facing growing pressure from the West, Arab states and his opponents at home, Moscow’s best hope of maintaining influence may be “a controlled demolition, of sorts - a managed transition to a new regime, shorn of Bashar but built around the loyalists of the Assad dynasty”, Joshi said. There are problems with that approach, however.
By twice vetoing UN resolutions that would have condemned Assad, and resisting pleas from visiting Syrian opposition groups to join calls for his resignation, Moscow may have ruined any remaining chance it had of being accepted by the opposition.