Russian President Vladimir Putin has been Bashar al-Assad's vital political ally since the start of the Syrian conflict three years ago. But as peace talks between the government and opposition falter in Geneva, is Moscow growing frustrated with the Syrian president?
We asked Fyodor Lukyanov, Moscow-based editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs and a member of the Russian Council for International Affairs, and Mark N. Katz, a professor at George Mason University specializing in Russian foreign policy and the international relations of the Middle East, to weigh in on the state of the relationship between Russia and Syria.
Syria Deeply: What is the state of the relationship between Moscow and Damascus? How is Russia feeling towards Assad at this point?
Fyodor Lukyanov: I don't think Russia is much frustrated with Assad, because Russia knew very well [from the start] what kind of person he is. There were no illusions from the beginning that this process would be easy. When the Russian side repeatedly told the American side their position, they [said that they] cannot force Assad to do something. We can only work with him carefully in order to push towards something, but we cannot just say "do this."
It seems that the level of stubbornness on [the part of both the Syrian government and the opposition] is bigger than Russian side could imagine. Of course, Russia will publicly defend Assad. I am sure the public position won't change and Russia will still play role of patron of the regime. But behind closed doors I think Russia will try to explain to Assad that situation is still very serious and that he needs to be more flexible in order to at least show some sings of progress.
Mark N. Katz: My sense is that they are frustrated with Assad, but that they think that they now have the upper hand, ever since last spring when the battle more or less turned in Assad's favor and things started going their way with Obama's acceptance of the chemical weapons proposal. Basically that was was a passive acceptance of the Assad regime.
What's also happened is we've seen the change of government in Egypt — the military there is much less sympathetic to the Syrian opposition [than the previous government] and Turkey launched a military attack on Jihadist rebel groups in Syria. So from Moscow's point of view, the West and other Arabs are now more accepting of Moscow's logic, which is that as bad as Assad is, he's better than [the opposition or] what's going to come next. The main exceptions to that are, of course, the Saudis and the Qataris.
Moscow's preferred solution is what the Algerian military accomplished in the 1990s, which is to brutally suppress the opposition, the same as the Russians themselves did in Chechnya. But that doesn't seem to be the long term outcome in Syria — Assad may remain in office, but he cant seem to eliminate his opponents, so this could just drag on indefinitely.
The Obama administration seems to be just walking away — they're not stopping the Russians from supporting Assad. If the Iranian-American rapprochement pushes through, Russia has to worry about whether Iran will make a deal with America [as regards Iran's support of Assad]. It may not seem like it's in the cards, but the Russians worry about these things.
SD: What's in this for Russia? What are they actually getting out of the relationship with the Syrian government?
FL: Now it's not so much about a relationship with the Syrian government, with "Syria" as such. Syria used to be an important partner for the Soviets and then for Russian leadership, but now it's all much more about Russia's general credibility as a big power able to constructively settle international crises. In September of last year, when Putin came up with this elegant move on chemical weapons and then left the Russian foreign ministry to be very supportive of the Geneva II process. So Russia has taken a responsibility which [it will] need to preserve.
What is needed now is another bold move [by Russia] — [thus far using diplomatic skills, even brilliant ones, and trying to pressure [Assad] isn't enough. There is a need for a way to change the framework. In the current [diplomatic] framework it doesn't seem that even with very big efforts from all sides, the U.S., Russia and [UN negotiator Lakhdar] Brahimi, something lacks.
MK: Putin sees it as a point of principle. Part of it is he wants to be seen as remaining loyal to his allies, because if he pulls the rug out from under Assad, what does this mean for his relationship with Central Asian dictators? Because they have a choice whether to rely on Russia or China. They also believe their rhetoric that if the Syrian government falls, it will lead to an upsurge of jihadist violence in Russia. You'd need Assad to fall for that to happen.
As regards his domestic position, Putin looks strong if Assad remains in power and defies Western wishes. What Putin doesn't want to do is agree with the West about the benefits of Assad leaving and then have Russia complicit in the fall of Assad, because that would make Putin look pretty weak. What's given Russia a lot of hope is that if the Obama administration refuses [to actively engage and pursue a Syria] policy, it allows Russia a lot more freedom in Syria — they can do what they more or less want.
SD: Could Assad do anything that would lead Russia to withdraw its support?
FL: It's difficult for Russia to withdraw its support, because that would mean the collapse of all [foreign] policy. I don't think Assad is crazy enough to so something to terminate the whole process. The only thing he could do is a chemical weapons operation, but that would be a huge damage to Russian credibility and I don't think Russia would allow that. Without that, I really don't see Assad doing anything that would lead Russia to withdraw its support.
MK: The one thing that would really hurt would be a massive use of chemical weapons, because that would look bad [to the international community]. The other thing is that if they stop complying with the [United Nations-brokered] chemical weapons accord, it will make it harder for Russia to oppose penalties against Assad. The Obama administration believes that Russia can deliver [with] Assad on this accord. But if it becomes clear that Russia can't, it's unclear what America will do. The real trouble is that Russia doesn't control Assad. They can support him, but they really cat get him to change his behavior.
SD: What do you see for this relationship in the coming months, post-Geneva?
MK: It partly depends on what happens with the Iran-U.S. relationship. Some people say that the weapons going to [the Syrian government] are paid for by Iran. If Iran stops doing this, is Russia really going to carry the full weight of supporting Assad? The fact that Iran has been all-in on Syria has made it a lot easier for Russia. If things go badly in Syria, it's bad for Russia, and if they go well in the Iran-America relationship, it's bad for Russia too. It's a precarious position, though I don't think Russia sees it as such right now.