Anna Smolchenko, AFP
Last updated: 14 December, 2012

Russia still at odds with West on Syria

Russia’s stubborn policy on Syria that has irked opponents of President Bashar al-Assad remains unchanged, and suggestions to the contrary may reflect wishful thinking on the part of the West, analysts said on Friday.

Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov said this week that the Syrian regime “is losing more and more control”, leading the United States to proclaim that Moscow was “finally waking up to the reality”.

Russia however quickly played down Bogdanov’s remarks and acidly retorted Friday that “we were never sleeping to begin with,” telling the West not to expect Moscow to cave in to pressure.

While analysts admitted that by issuing mixed messages Russia may be seeking to manoeuvre the ongoing negotiations on the Syrian conflict in a particular direction, they said Moscow was in no hurry to announce a major policy shift.

“There is no need to sound the alarm and speak of a change in the position,” said Alexei Sarabyev, a Middle East expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, a think tank with links to the government.

“The central line remains the same.”

Boris Dolgov, an analyst at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said the West, keen to see Assad go might, might have read too much into the tea leaves.

“The West is trying to see the change in a position where there is not any,” Dolgov told AFP.

“The West is seeking to have Russia change its stance and is putting pressure on it.”

Moscow has been seen by the West as a staunch ally of Assad’s regime since opposition rebels first launched their bid to topple him in March 2011.

With China, it has vetoed three UN Security Council resolutions, backed by the United States, aimed at imposing sanctions.

Russia has refused to turn against Assad’s regime despite the conflict, which according to rights groups has killed 42,000 people since March last year.

It infuriated the West and anti-Assad Arab states by refusing to cut military and other ties with Damascus established during the Soviet era with the president’s father and predecessor Hafez al-Assad.

But it also surprised the US last week when Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreed to join US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in three-way talks with UN peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in Dublin.

Top level officials then met over the weekend in Geneva, where they held “constructive talks,” Brahimi said.

They discussed ways “to move forward a peaceful process and mobilise greater international action in favour of a political solution to the Syrian crisis”.

Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the Russia in Global Affairs journal, downplayed the significance of Bogdanov’s comments.

“He expressed his professional opinion. Diplomats absolutely do not want sensationalism,” he said, referring to the foreign ministry’s desire to play down the comments.

Deputy Foreign Minister Bogdanov said at a meeting of the Public Chamber oversight body on Thursday that Assad could lose the conflict with the rebels.

It is not clear if Bogdanov – who is also the Kremlin’s special envoy for the Middle East – was aware that his remarks were on the record and would be reported by Russian media.

The foreign ministry released a statement earlier Friday saying Bogdanov “has made no statements or special interviews with journalists in the last days”.

Yury Korgunyuk, a political analyst with Indem think tank, said Bogdanov’s comments also showed that Moscow was aware that there was little it could do to support its Soviet-era ally.

“Post-Soviet Russia lacks resources to support its former Soviet-era allies,” he said.

“The foreign ministry’s leadership understands that if it chooses a tough line on Syria it may see a repeat of the Libyan scenario where Moscow has lost its influence completely.”

Moscow lost major arms and infrastructure contracts through the toppling of the regime of its former ally Moamer Kadhafi in Libya.