'Russia concerned with stability, not keeping Assad'

Local experts tell 'Post' in spite of Moscows's interest in Syria, policy-makers consider Syrian president Assad dispensable.

June 11, 2013 23:47
2 minute read.
President Putin meets President Assad: File Photo

Putin and Assad (R370). (photo credit: REUTERS)

Russia’s policies toward the Syrian conflict are focused on restoring stability to the war-torn country, and are not necessarily committed to keeping President Bashar Assad in power, local experts said on Tuesday.

Despite Russia’s interest in continuity in Syria, policy-makers in Moscow ultimately consider Assad to be dispensable, according to Mordechai Kedar, a Syria expert and research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Security Studies at Bar-Ilan University.

“The Russians are not suicidal. If they see that Assad is finished, they will try to get the best out of the situation, which depends on the developments on the ground,” Kedar told The Jerusalem Post.

But while Western diplomats have sought to capitalize on Russia’s realist calculus and see potential in Russia’s participation in the talks in Geneva, Kedar said that he expects little convergence of interests, especially in light of the Syrian army’s recent gains against the rebels.

“Russia’s behavior in the negotiations, whether international or bilateral, will be as a result of efforts to preserve Assad as much as possible and to ensure that the group that will replace him will remain loyal to the axis of Iran, Russia, Iraq and Hezbollah,” he said.

Although Syria remains Russia’s principal military and economic bridgehead in the Arab world, the preservation of a Shi’ite regime in Damascus is equally important to Moscow’s broader regional policy, in light of both parties’ relationship with Iran. Aligned with Russia on issues of energy production and nuclear proliferation, the Iranian regime staunchly supports Syria as part of what is widely understood to be a “Shi’ite crescent” extending toward Hezbollah on the Mediterranean shore.

Given Western support for a rival Sunni bloc encompassing the Gulf Arab states and Turkey, Russian support for the Iran-Syria axis can be seen in terms of what Marc Heller, a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, described as “the continuing ambitions of Russian leadership to be seen as a great power” in the post-Soviet era.

Despite Russia’s support for Iran’s bid for regional dominance, the Kremlin’s interests in Syria are not necessarily at variance with Israel’s, according to Heller, who emphasized the constructive tone of Russian-Israeli relations and mutual concerns about Islamic radicalization in the region.

“The Russian preference seems to be to compartmentalize relations to the extent that they can, and have good relations with everybody,” said Heller.

Although the UN has rejected President Vladimir Putin’s offer to replace Austrian peacekeeping troops on the Golan Heights with a Russian contingent, Kedar suggested that such a move could have been to Israel’s strategic benefit.

“I myself would encourage the Russians to do it if I could, because the presence of Russian soldiers will be very tempting for jihadists aiming to kidnap them or kill them, mainly because Russia is the biggest supporter of the Assad regime. This will put Russia and jihadists on a collision course, which might at the end of the day work toward the interests of Israel,” he said.

With Israel’s ambivalent policy guided by concerns about radical Islamist activity on the Syrian- Israeli border, Heller expected that the Syrian conflict will continue to see “some overlap between Israeli and Russian concerns.”

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