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Is Russia Shifting Its Stance on Syria?

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University, and one of the leading experts on Russian-Arab relations. He is the author of Leaving without Losing: The War on Terror after Iraq and Afghanistan, published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

Written by Prof. Mark N. Katz Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Is Russia now going to play a “positive role” in Syria?

At this week’s Munich Security Conference, Syrian opposition leader Moaz al-Khatib had repeated his recent proposal to meet with an “acceptable” representative of the Assad regime.  After their meeting, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, also in attendance, called it an “important step,” and indicated that Moscow was prepared to facilitate talks between the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition.

Also in Munich, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was said to have proposed privately to Lavrov that the U.S. and Russia “work jointly to maintain secure control of Syria’s chemical weapons, in the event that Assad’s government should fall.”

These two developments led Washington Post columnist David Ignatius (who attended the conference and reported the above) to observe that “there’s no good way out of the Syrian crisis without Russian help,” and that “it was good to hear two new ideas for how Russia could play a positive role in Syria.”  (http://www.washingtonpost.<wbr>com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/<wbr>2013/02/04/involving-russia-<wbr>in-syria/)

But is Russia really going to play that role?

If the role is understood as Russian cooperation with America and its Western and Arab allies to arrange for a transfer of power from the Assad regime to the opposition, this doesn’t, at present, seem likely.

Lavrov’s conversation with al-Khatib in Munich is not the first meeting between Russian officialdom and the Syrian opposition. The Russian press and Syrian opposition leaders have reported several such meetings.

These previous meetings did not signal a change in Moscow’s policy toward Syria.

While it is possible that this latest meeting might just be different and be the harbinger of Russia beginning to play a “positive role” in Syria, there are at least three other possible Russian motives for Lavrov’s meeting with al-Khatib.

One? That Moscow is merely hedging its bets.  As recent statements by high-level Russian officials (including President Putin himself) have indicated, Moscow is now openly acknowledging the possibility that the Assad regime may fall.

This being the case, it would only be sensible for Moscow to try to build a positive relationship with the Syrian opposition in order to improve Russia’s chances for retaining its economic and military stakes in Syria should the current Syrian opposition become the next regime.

Moscow attempting to position itself to work with a post-Assad regime in Syria should it arise, though, does not mean that Moscow has decided to play a “positive role” in bringing about such a transition.

As Ignatius himself noted, al-Khatib’s proposal to meet even with “acceptable” representatives from the Assad regime was heavily criticized by other Syrian opposition figures.

Lavrov’s praise for al-Khatib’s proposal, then, may not have been intended to bring about a dialogue between the Syrian government and opposition but to encourage a split within the ranks of the Syrian opposition for the benefit of the Assad regime (and its Russian supporters).

A third potential motive for Lavrov to meet with al-Khatib is much more modest:  Moscow may just want to be seen as being open to discussions with the Syrian opposition in an effort to reduce the loud criticism that its support for the Assad regime has garnered in the Arab World.

But whatever Lavrov’s motivation for meeting with al-Khatib in Munich, the crisis in Syria may have gotten well beyond the point that Russia can play much of a role—positive or otherwise—in resolving it.

Even the publicly expressed doubts of Putin himself about whether the Assad regime will survive have not served to persuade Assad that his time is up and that he better leave the country while he still can.

Although Ignatius—and many in the Obama Administration—may believe that there is “no good way out of the Syrian crisis without Russian help,” the truth of the matter is that  even if it suddenly became willing (and this is not clear), Russia may simply be unable to make a positive contribution to the resolution of the conflict in Syria.

America and others would be well advised to proceed on this pessimistic assessment than on the unrealistic hope that Moscow can somehow help us resolve the Syrian conflict — if only we could just persuade it to do so.

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