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Will Russia turn its back on Assad?

August 31, 2015 at 12:37 pm

The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, travelled to Russia to hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Zhukovsky near Moscow last Tuesday. Putin was also hosting Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egyptian President Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi. While the official reason for the visits is the MAKS 2015, an international aviation and space show, discussion of the crisis in Syria was firmly on the agenda.

Russia has been a strong backer of embattled Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad, providing military and financial support, alongside using its position on the United Nations Security Council to block resolutions that would condemn the Syrian government. This has pitted Russia against not just the West, but also many Arab leaders who also want to see Assad removed from power.

However, the pace of diplomatic contact between Moscow and Arab leaders backing the various factions of the Syrian opposition has been picking up. In Qatar, talks were held on Syria between the US Secretary of State, the Russian Foreign Minister and the Saudi Foreign Minister in Oman. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem held talks after meeting with Iranian and Russian officials in Tehran. In Moscow there have been a number of high-profile visitors, including the Saudi Foreign Minister and a number of Syrian opposition leaders. Could this flurry of activity signal an eventual end for Russia’s support for Assad?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced in early August that his recent meeting with Putin has left him with the impression that the Russian leader will soon “give up” on Assad. US President Barack Obama also said earlier this month that Russia and Iran “recognise that the trend lines are not good for Assad.” Reports have also surfaced that Russia has been reducing its diplomatic staff in Damascus, which was interpreted as a sign that Moscow is preparing for Assad’s defeat.

Assad agreed to a rare television interview on Wednesday during which he tried to dispel such concerns; he expressed “strong confidence” that Russia will continue supporting the regime. Russia has publicly maintained this position, with a Russian foreign ministry official reiterating in July that the Kremlin sees Assad as the lawful president of Syria and only the Syrian people can determine who might replace him.

However, Russia certainly has strategic incentives to change course. Firstly, Assad is struggling on the battlefield. In his annual address in July, he admitted that his forces had been forced to give up certain areas as a result of a shortage of manpower. He is left in charge of just one sixth of the country, while ISIL is already operating franchises across the Muslim world that analysts have said could enflame Russia’s low-burning Chechen insurgency. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev describe this organisation as Russia’s main enemy and main threat to global security respectively.

The threat of ISIS is the point of agreement for most global leaders regardless of which side of the conflict they support. For example, while Saudi and Russia are at opposite ends of the spectrum on Syria and have come to blows over their differences – Saudi’s Foreign Minister has said the Russians are “an essential part of the tragedies befalling the Syrian people” – yet both see eye to eye when it comes to ISIS. Russia recently called for a global effort to tackle ISIS; however, Putin still sees Assad as a part of that effort as he prevents the group from having a grip over the whole country.

Western sanctions on Ukraine and the dropping of oil prices are also taking an economic toll on Russia. Saudi has been flooding the market with oil, which many observers suggest is an attempt hurt the economy of Russia, another oil-producing giant, with the aim of loosening Moscow’s support for Assad. Putin agrees – he said in November that “a political component is always present in oil prices”. Experts say the oil price decline has hit Russia harder than economic sanctions.

At the same time, Saudi signed a contract to invest $10 billion in Russia, the largest foreign direct investment yet. The Russian Direct Investment Fund, with which the deal was signed, declined to comment on whether the investment was part of this political agenda, but its chief executive did say that the political climate might have helped close the deal. “Sometimes the wind can help bring the ship to its destination,” he said. The Kingdom also signed a deal to cooperate with Russia’s state nuclear agency Rosatom on joint projects in July.

These new investments, against the backdrop of the Saudi oil game, could all be measures to pressure Russia to drop Assad. Russians reportedly rejected a previous offer that the Saudis made behind closed doors to trade support for Assad for lucrative deals, among other things.

Putin is, however, not one to buckle under economic pressure from outside sources to change his policies – the sanctions regime has not ended Russia’s involvement in Ukraine and his support for Assad remains steadfast in the face of growing pressure. But he is looking for replacements for Western funding, steadily turning toward Asian investors.

The flurry of diplomatic activity on Syria has followed the recent nuclear deal reached between Iran and world powers. Saudi and Iran are embroiled in a proxy war and the deal is a serious bone of contention between the Kingdom and its ally, the United States. The oil price decline could be a way to also hurt Iran, and the deals could be the Saudis’ attempt to move towards Russia as a counterweight;  in part to challenge Iran’s regional primacy and to teach the US a lesson.

Regardless, behind the confident exterior Assad must be worried. Improved Riyadh and Moscow relations will struggle to be kept separate from the Syria issue. The Iran deal has opened up the possibility of greater cooperation between Tehran and Western countries,  and many will be hoping it can unlock the Syria conundrum. Although he may be hoping the strengthening of his allies is only a good thing, how much longer will they be willing to prop up the embattled leader?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.