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Middle East

Russia's U-Turn on Syria concern for Damascus' residents

media Syrian president Bashar al-Assad here seen with Russien president Vladimer Putin in 2006 AFP PHOTO/ POOL/ SERGEI KARPUKHIN

The pan-Arab daily newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat reported that Russia is reversing its support for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The paper quotes anonymous diplomatic sources who said Russian officials now talk of a ‘post Assad’ Syria. Observers told RFI the rumours may be the writing on the wall.

According to the report, Moscow has withdrawn about one hundred specialists that were assigned to work with authorities in Damascus. Local analysts say the information has been circulating for several weeks.

Russia has been a supporter of the Assad regime since the beginning of the crisis, opposing any form of UN-sponsored armed intervention.

“In politics there are no permanent alliances,” says Hilal Kashan, a political scientist with the American University in Beirut.“ There are permanent interests. And the Russians leadership now understands that it will have to deal with the post-Assad period, because the Assad regime is no longer visible.”

Asharq Al-Awsat quotes a “Russian representative” at an “unpublicized high-level meeting of security officials aimed at tackling the threat of terrorist groups to international security.”

In response to Moscows' view of Syria “after Assad,” the representative is reported as saying, "what concerns Russia is the safeguard of its strategic interests and safety of minorities in Syria," the paper writes.

If true, a possible reversal of Russian support to Syria raises the question of how Iran, the other powerful backer of the regime in Damascus, will react.

“If there was some sort of change in Iran’s strategy in Syria, I wouldn’t think of it only as a result of decision by the Russians,” says Sara Bazoobandi, an associate Fellow with the Middle East and Africa Program of Chatham House.

She points out that other concerns, such as the ongoing conflict in Yemen where Iran is backing Houthi rebels and the approaching deadline for the nuclear negotiations that are currently ongoing between Tehran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, are more important to Tehran. The deadline for nuclear talks is set for June 30.

And there are signs that Iran, too, is withdrawing at least some of its support for Syria. “The Iranians have scaled down their direct military support to Syria in terms of providing forces with military hardware,” says Kashan.

During the past month the regime lost major depots in Palmyra and Idlib, and there’s no point for Iran supplying Damascus with military hardware “that the rebels would end up capturing anyway.”

Meanwhile, the minority Alawi population feels that the government of Bashar al-Assad is losing ground.

“In Damascus, the Alawis no longer refer to themselves as Alawis, they refer to themselves as Damascene,” says Kashan. “ Alawi’s make up about ten percent of Syria’s population, but they control the government and the higher echelons of the military.

“But,” says Kashan, “the years of pride and joy and sense of empowerment appear to have given way to panic and pondering their future. Ugly things have happened in Syria over the past four years, therefore there is no reason to assume that we are about to witness an end to hostilities.”

“The gap between the Sunnis and the Alawis has grown so deep, and there is blood between them. So I think lots of atrocities will be committed before a negotiated settlement is reached. Reaching peace is far more difficult than ending the conclict.”

At the moment, Bashar al-Assad seems to be regrouping his forces in areas he is sure he can control. “The regime forces did not fight hard in Palmyra, they chose to pull out, and again the same thing when they pulled out from Idlib and headed towards the coast.”

“It was clear that the Syria regime has accepted the idea of Syria’s partitioning. And they are focusing their efforts on maintaining their hold on the coast and Damascus as well as the road that links Damascus to the coast.”

Kashan thinks Assad wants to keep Damascus as a “bargaining chip” in forthcoming negotiations.

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