MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia seems to be positioning itself for the day Bashar al-Assad may lose power, but nothing in recent statements shows President Vladimir Putin is shifting to join Western rivals in backing the rebels in Syria’s civil war.
As Syria’s new opposition coalition consolidates, Russia has stepped up efforts to tell the world it is not on President Assad’s side, despite its blocking Western and Arab efforts to provide U.N. support for the rebel forces trying to topple him.
Putin’s special Middle East envoy met quietly with members of the opposition coalition last week, and diplomacy on Syria was the focus of two trips Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has made to the region in November - neither of them to Damascus.
Lavrov said on Wednesday “there can be no talk of Russia getting drawn into the armed conflict” in Syria - a pat message but also a reminder of the limits of Russian support for Assad, who has given Moscow its firmest foothold in the Middle East.
In Paris on Tuesday, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev repeated a statement Putin delivered as long ago as March - that Russia has no “special relationship” with Syria - and said Assad and his foes “bear equal responsibility for what is going on”.
Moscow has often suggested the rebels bear more blame for 20 months of violence, which has killed more than 40,000 people since Assad’s government began a crackdown on protests in March 2011. It has accused Western nations of encouraging them.
But analysts said any new emphasis heard in Medvedev’s remarks, notably on Assad sharing equal blame, should be ascribed to a difference in style between him and Putin - it was not a sign of a substantive change in Moscow’s stance.
Russia has been verbally distancing itself from Assad for months, part of an effort to cast itself as a neutral player with an interest in peace alone; a Western diplomat called Russian meetings with the opposition “contingency planning”.
A Russian diplomatic source suggested the meeting by the Kremlin envoy, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, with opposition members last week brought no deviation from Moscow’s policy; Russia is telling all opposition groups there is no way to resolve the situation other than by dialogue with Assad’s government, the source said. All meetings are in line with Russia’s long-standing principle of talking to both sides.
“It would take a really major development, a real game-changer in Syria, to make Russia change - something like the fall of Assad or a clear signal that that is looming,” another Western diplomatic source said.
The Kremlin is not convinced that is the case, said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs.
“Russia’s position stays the same; it is the situation that changes. Russia’s position at times looks like a losing one and then suddenly it seems like supporting Assad further is not a mistake, because Assad is not a doomed president,” Lukyanov said. “There are no grounds for Russia to change its approach now.”
The reasons for that have as much to do with Putin’s global manoeuvring as with Assad’s prospects for political survival.
Russia has practical motives to hold onto the hope that Assad could stay in power.
One of Moscow’s strongest footholds in the Middle East since the Soviet era, Syria has been a major client for Russian arms sales and hosts a naval maintenance and supply facility that is Russia’s only military base outside the former Soviet Union.
Perhaps more important to Putin, who started a new six-year term in May after the biggest opposition protests since his first election in 2000, is the image of a strong leader standing up to the West and opposing U.S.-led intervention abroad.
“The position on Syria is very stable because it comes from (Putin‘s) perception of how things should be: that one must not interfere and support one of the sides,” Lukyanov said. “The Libyan precedent must not be repeated.”
Russia has adamantly warned the West it would not allow a repeat in Syria of last year’s events in Libya, where NATO military intervention helped rebels to topple Muammar Gaddafi.
Moscow had let the NATO air operation go ahead by abstaining in the U.N. vote that authorised it. But it then accused the alliance of overstepping its mandate to protect civilians in an American-led drive for regime change - anathema to the Kremlin, which is aware of Western sympathies for the Russian opposition.
Putin’s attention to his image at home also helps shape Russia’s policy on Syria, reinforcing his need to look resolute and avoid appearing to change its position.
Putin was voted in to a third presidential term after a campaign in which he accused the United States of encouraging opposition protests and said Western states were seeking to influence Russia’s elections.
“Russian foreign policy is in many ways is driven by domestic issues,” a Western diplomatic source said.
“It may not be a dominating factor in this case, but with all this anti-Western rhetoric now flourishing at home, how can they suddenly change on such a theme and ally with the West out of the blue?” (Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)