Russia is now hedging a statement made by its Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, who said Thursday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may be losing control of the country to rebels. It was the first time a Russian official publicly acknowledged the possibility of an opposition victory in the crisis which so far has killed more than 40,000 people. Now, one day later, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich says Russia has not changed its policy toward Syria. Jeffrey Mankoff is deputy director and fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies Russia and Eurasia Program and a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York City. Senior reporter Cecily Hilleary asked him to comment on Bogdanov’s words.
Mankoff: I think they are significant to the extent that they signal that Russia is less confident that Assad is ultimately going to prevail in the struggle. You know, they’ve said from the very beginning that they are not in this to defend Assad per se, but because of their concerns about the situation getting out of hand, and the potential for extremist groups to come to power and also because of their concerns about foreign intervention led by the United States.
But underpinning all of that was a belief that at the end of the day Assad was going to come out on top, and it was very much a kind of calculated of gamble. And I think what Deputy Foreign Minister Bogdanov’s comments would seem to indicate more than anything is that they are beginning to reassess that gamble, based on a belief that Assad’s chances of staying in power are perhaps less now than they have looked up to this point.
Hilleary: Well, where does that leave Russia? I spoke a little while ago with a member of the Syrian opposition who feels that Russia has “blown it.” How much does Russia need Syria, because there certainly won’t be good relations when Assad does fall?
Mankoff: Right, that’s the thing. And it’s not only about Syria, of course. It’s about the entire region. The Russians, I think, have handled the whole Arab Spring phenomenon not especially effectively and have, I think, damaged their relations with the Egyptians, not to mention with the Saudis, the Qataris and others who are really at the forefront of this. And then, of course, there’s Turkey, which is a whole other issue here. So I think they are now trying to make the best of what is clearly for them a bad situation.
And for some time, they’ve been trying to keep lines of communication with the Syrian opposition open. Representatives from the Syrian National Council have been in Moscow on a couple of occasions, but it’s been pretty clear that Russia is probably the most important and steadfast foreign supporter of Assad, apart from countries like Iran. And I’m sure that the opposition, assuming it comes to power, is not going to forget that, any more than the opposition in Egypt or Libya forgot the role that Russia played.
So, assuming that Assad does go, it’s going to have negative consequences for Russian influence in the region. That doesn’t mean that at the end of the day they won’t be able to strike some kind of deal with whatever post-Assad government comes to power, protecting at least what they see to be their vital interests. But in terms of having actually been able to have influence and to shape the way that the post-Assad government is going to be able to operate, I think they have mostly missed the opportunity to do that.
Hilleary: Is there any chance, in your view, that Russia may switch sides and support the opposition?
Mankoff: I think that they will be one of the last countries to do that, and only when it becomes very clear that there is no chance that Assad is going to stay.
Hilleary: Well, they are talking about evacuating their people—
Mankoff: They’ve been talking about those evacuations for months now. They haven’t actually done it yet. When they do – and Bogdanov mentioned this in his comments too – that it’s a political step as much as a humanitarian one. It’s a sign that they are basically giving up the ghost. And as long as there is, in their view, a chance of things turning out differently and those individuals are not at high risk from the military operations, they will wait as long as possible to get them out.
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for Dubai-TV English. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf regions, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA and MEV a keen understanding of the region's top social, cultural and political issues.