Daily Israel Report

Russia Shifting Position on Assad, Tells Him to Make Haste

For various reasons, Russia is moving away from its unwavering support for Bashar Assad.
By Amiel Ungar
First Publish: 3/25/2012, 12:26 PM

Anti-Assad Demo
Anti-Assad Demo
Reuters

On Saturday, Syria's beleaguered President Hafez al-Assad appeared to be stepping up the tempo in his attempt to eradicate the insurgents.

This is not an angry response to the European Union's clamping down on his wife's shopping options, but a sense that the diplomatic clock may be running down.

The UN and Arab League mediator, former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, is on his way to Russia to speak with outgoing president Dmitry Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and then go on to China.

The two countries gave their approval to a nonbinding UN statement supporting the  Annan formula for an end to the violence in Syria, the opening up of humanitarian corridors, access to international observers, release of political prisoners, access to the media and a legal guarantee of peaceful political activities.

What is more ominous for Assad is the music coming from Moscow. This was started by Foreign Minister Lavrov.  

The Russian Foreign Minister still does not quite see the conflict as pitting the oppressed and righteous opposition against the Assad regime, but instead, accuses the Gulf States of subversion.

However, Lavrov moved towards criticism of the Syrian regime, claiming that Assad had reacted incorrectly to nonviolent protest and had disregarded Russia's appeals to act differently.

On top of this came comments by the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Duma's upper house Mikhail Margelov. Margelov is very well connected with the Kremlin, is considered one of his country's top Middle East experts and speaks fluent Arabic.

Briefing Russian news agencies, Margelov announced that Assad had to take the first step and pull back the Syrian army from the big cities, clearing the way for the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Something appears to be moving in the Kremlin, leading to speculation about the causes for this shift in position by Moscow.

Some would say that this was expected once the election was over.

Vladimir Putin apparently believed, according to one theory, that he had to secure his nationalist and anti-American flank. His closest rival, although by a far distance, was the Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, who had already accused the Kremlin of making a deal with the Americans by granting them a base for the delivery of supplies to Afghanistan in return for recognizing the election results.

Now that the election is safely behind him, it is time for fence-mending, particularly as the Russians have claimed that they would like to see Barack Obama reelected in November.

Another theory is that the increasing criticism of Russia in Arab circles is beginning to hit home - and may begin to outweigh Moscow's fear of losing its last Soviet era strong point in Syria, despite its bases and weapons contracts.

At a meeting of the Socialist International in Istanbul, Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt called upon Russia to take Assad and his familily and allow the Syrians to settle things without him, as nobody would be insane enough to make a deal with Assad.

Jumblatt couldn't be clearer, saying "If Russia was concerned about the best interests of the Syrian people, it would remove this family [Assad’s] and take him to Russia or some other place and leave the Syrian people to decide their fate in freedom and dignity”.

Russia has also mounted a diplomatic offensive in the Arab world to try to convince the Arabs of its benevolent intentions in Syria.

A final theory, mentioned in the Asia Times, claims that the shift was made possible precisely by Russia and China's success in blocking Western diplomatic moves and showing the West that nothing would move without Moscow's approval.

The West, in the meantime, was discouraged by disunity and questionable elements within the Syrian opposition.

This sets the stage for a transition where Russia will be a major player.

For Assad it does not matter which theory is correct, because if Russia removes its diplomatic support, it is a long way down for Bashar al-Assad.