Russia insists it stands by Syria's Assad, despite earlier comments

The Russian deputy foreign minister said yesterday that the Syrian regime might fall – a bold declaration because Russia has been a key ally of President Bashar al-Assad.

Manu Brabo/AP
A Free Syrian Army fighter fires at Syrian Army positions in Tal Sheer village, north of Aleppo province, Syria, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012.

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Russia today denied that it had changed its policy towards the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a day after a high-ranking Russian official admitted publicly for the first time that the Syrian government may fall.

A spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry said today that Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, in comments widely published yesterday that acknowledged the possible victory of Syria's rebels, was only reiterating Russia's official position of supporting a political end to the conflict, reports RIA Novosti.

...[O]n Friday Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich was dismissive [of reports that Russia was backing away from Assad]. “I saw the US State Department spokeswoman citing [Bodganov] and praising how Moscow has finally woken up and is changing its position,” he said.

“But we never slept. And we never changed our position, and will not do so in the future,” Lukashevich said at a press briefing in Moscow.

RIA Novosti writes that the ministry said Mr. Bogdanov "has not made any specific statements for the press on Syria in recent days," suggesting that his statements were not intended to reflect Russian policy.

Russia has been a staunch supporter of Assad's since the conflict began last year, and before yesterday had not countenanced the possibility of his fall. Bogdanov's comments -- made at a Kremlin hearing in which he addressed the ongoing conflict in Syria and its possible outcome, reports Reuters – thus marked what was seen as a significant shift.

"An opposition victory can't be excluded, unfortunately, but it's necessary to look at the facts: There is a trend for the government to progressively lose control over an increasing part of the territory," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said during hearings at a Kremlin advisory body. ...

Bogdanov also reaffirmed Russia's call for a compromise, saying it would take the opposition a long time to defeat the regime and Syria would suffer heavy casualties.

"The fighting will become even more intense, and you will lose tens of thousands and, perhaps, hundreds of thousands of people," he said. "If such a price for the ouster of the president seems acceptable to you, what can we do? We, of course, consider it absolutely unacceptable."

Bogdanov's comments were taken by many as a sign of the Kremlin's weakening support for Assad. US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said she "commend[ed] the Russian Government for finally waking up to the reality and acknowledging that the regime’s days are numbered."

But Andrew Weiss, formerly of the US state and defense departments, wrote in a commentary for Foreign Policy that it was more important to "Watch what the Kremlin does, not what it says." Mr. Weiss argues that there has been little evidence that Russia is backing away from Assad.

Indeed, the evidence runs in the opposite direction. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Sunday said, "We are not conducting any negotiations on the fate of Assad. ... All attempts to portray things differently are unscrupulous, even for diplomats of those countries which are known to try to distort the facts in their favor." Other official spokesmen never miss an opportunity to condemn the militarization of the conflict, foreign interference in Syria's domestic affairs, and even NATO's plan to provide Patriot missiles to Turkey to help guard its airspace against Syrian incursions. And both Time magazine and ProPublica have reported recently on Syrian skullduggery to arrange continued imports of Russian attack helicopters and Russian-printed Syrian banknotes, which are helping keep the shaky Syrian economy afloat.

And the Guardian notes that while Assad may be on the back foot, he is still far from being toppled, even if Russia is starting to withdraw its support.

"Assad's situation is very difficult," said one senior Arab source in the region. "But he has a lot of strength. He is still getting arms and finance from Iran and his military capability is still robust." ...

What appears to have undergone a subtle change in recent weeks is the attitude of Russia and Iran. According to an observer closely familiar with recent high level diplomatic exchanges over Syria, Russia is said to be moving gradually towards accepting there may need to be a third alternative to the scenarios in which either Assad survives or is replaced by an unknown quantity involving jihadist groups.

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