What is Russia thinking on Syria? A brief guide

As the crisis in Syria collapses into what looks like full-blown civil war, Russia's response stems from a complicated mix of principle, self-interest, mistrust of Western motives, and differing perceptions of the situation.

Russia thinks Assad can still win

Russia thinks Assad can still win.

Moscow's view of Assad is not based on affection or a sense of solidarity among autocratic states, Russian experts insist, but rather a solid appraisal of his regime's strengths.

Among those, they say, are the allegiance of the Christian, Alawite, and Sunni middle class, who make up about 30 percent of the population, plus the tough and proven loyalty of Syria's military and security forces.

"Maybe Putin is mistaken, but he clearly believes Assad has a lot of resiliency, plenty of resources, and that he can win this war," says Georgy Mirsky, a leading expert at the official Institute of International Relations and World Economy in Moscow. "Why would Putin drop Assad now? If he agrees to this new UN plan that would exclude Assad from power in Syria, it will look like Putin has capitulated to US pressure. He doesn't need that kind of political trouble at home right now. Any compromise that involves removing Assad in future will have to provide a face-saving formula for Putin."

In practice, Russia seems only likely to abandon Assad once it's clear there are no other options. During the Libya intervention last year, Moscow stuck by Muammar Qaddafi's faltering regime until practically the last moment. Only once the outcome was obvious, in September, did Russia swiftly change gears and extend recognition to the Libyan rebel alliance that overthrew Mr. Qaddafi.

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