Syrian President Bashar Assad (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Russia may be sensing an imminent shift against Syrian President Bashar Assad, removing its advisers and other strategic personnel from the war torn country.
"The Kremlin has begun to turn away from the regime," the London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat reported on Sunday, quoting an opposition official.
According to the report, for three months Moscow has been reducing its diplomatic staff in Damascus to essential personnel exclusively and the most recent move saw 100 Russians, along with their families, board a plane at the Latakia airport. Lebanese figures belonging to Hezbollah, as well as Iranian officials, were also said to be aboard the flight. According to the report, none of the personnel, main-stays of the government's War-Room throughout the civil war, have been replaced.
The opposition source also informed the Saudi-backed, London newspaper that the Russians have stopped honoring an agreement with the Syrian regime to ensure the maintenance of its Russian made Sukhoi aircraft, a strategic element of Syria's air force that has been an important technical edge in the fight against the rebels.
The sudden halt prompted a visit by Syrian Defense Minister Fahd Jassem al-Freij to Tehran, who asked Iran to address Russia and request that they reconsider such a move.
Asked as to the future of the Syrian state at a meeting of Western security agencies last month, the head of the Russian delegation gave an answer that seemingly marks a change in the Kremlin's interests, suggesting that rather than ensuring Assad's rule, which has been Moscow's refrain since the civil war broke out in 2011, "What matters to Russia is maintaining its strategic interests and ensuring the future of the minorities, the unity of Syria and the struggle against extremists."
The scale-down of its relationship with the Assad regime comes in light of the dramatic gains made by the Islamic State group who, after pushing government forces from the Eastern city of Palmyra, is estimated to be in control of 50% of Syria's territory. Meanwhile, in the north, Jaish al-Fatah, a coalition spanning various factions opposed to the Assad regime, has recently driven out government forces from the Idlib Province.
Yet the report also highlights the ongoing crisis in Ukraine as a potential factor for Moscow's abandoning of Damascus. Amid the increased political pressure on Russia to halt its support for rebels in Eastern Ukraine, Russia may be implicitly offering the West a transition in Syria as a trade-off for the loosening of the sanctions strangling its economy.