Russia, led by President Vladimir Putin, is unlikely to drop its support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, even though it distrusts him and recognizes that his situation is not good, experts told The Jerusalem Post.
A Saudi-backed paper quoted unidentified sources in a report on Sunday that said that Russia is abandoning Assad’s regime and removing most officials and military experts.
Nikolay Kozhanov, a non-resident fellow at Carnegie Moscow Center and a visiting fellow at Chatham House London, told the Post on Sunday that, while Sunni media reports such as the one in Asharq Al-Awsat
should be taken with a “grain of salt,” “Russia does not trust Assad 100 percent.”
Kozhanov attributes this to two main reasons: the first being that Assad had previously sought a rapprochement with the West and only after the civil war began did the Syrian president turn his attention to his second choice of an alliance with Russia.
Secondly, Russia had asked Assad to get rid of Chechen fighters that had sought refuge in Syria, but he refused. There is even a rumor going around, noted Kozhanov, that these same Chechens are now fighting against the Syrian regime.
“Russia is not fighting for Assad as person, but for the regime” so that jihadists will not overwhelm the country, asserted Kozhanov.
With the rise of Islamic State and the current state of the civil war, Russian-Syrian relations are going through a “stress test,” he continued, adding that he has heard some Russian officials and even Syrians voice their disappointment in Assad’s stubbornness.
Asked if at some point the Russian government could stop supporting the Syrian regime, Kozhanov responded that Putin’s government will not likely pull its support for Assad, but could at some point withdraw “personal support” if there would be an alternative that would guarantee the continuation of the secular regime.
However, at this point, Russia sees Syria as a bulwark against the regional rise of Islamists.
Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the director of the Center for Energy, Natural Resources and Geopolitics at the Institute for Analysis of Global Security, told the Post that the Russians are realists and they have people on the ground that are following developments very closely.
Cohen attributes the evacuation of some Russian diplomats and their families to the deterioration of Assad’s position.
Russia may lower the profile of its presence in terms of the number of Russian citizens residing in Syria, but in terms of military aid and other support, “things will continue as usual.”
“It is important for the Kremlin to demonstrate that it is a reliable ally and support the regime until it collapses,” asserted Cohen.
The Russians clearly view the non-Sunni regimes in the region as their potential allies, though relations with Egypt are even more important than those with Syria, because it is seen as a stable anti-fundamentalist country with important economic and historical ties.
“The Russians see the Eastern Mediterranean as an external tier of power projection away from its borders,” extending into Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran, said Cohen, adding that it protects its borders with a “forward defense” of sorts. Greece, Cyprus, Syria and Egypt are Russia’s priorities in developing naval and military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, he said.
Yuri Teper, a Russian expert and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Manchester, told the Post that he has seen nothing in the Russian media about the country pulling support for Assad, but only reports about the removal of the families of diplomats.
Teper, who is also a fellow at the Israeli Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, said that to the contrary, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had said that his country is ready to fully meet the military needs of Syria and Iraq in order to ensure the expulsion of jihadists from their territories.
“I would estimate Russians would stop their support only when they are decisively sure Assad’s regime has no chance to survive,” he continued.
Russia does not see any viable alternative to Assad and so “I do not see any change in its policy there,” he asserted.
However, Teper continued, “I wouldn’t rule out that they might have started to prepare for the day after Assad.”