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What price does Russia want in Syria? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Within the space of a few days Moscow has flooded us with a sea of statements about the situation in Syria. On the one hand there are the statements of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and on the other hand there are the statements of Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in addition to the remarkable behavior of the Deputy Russian Foreign Minister, who has given at least three interviews this week alone!

All Russia’s recent statements, from the President to the Foreign Minister and the Deputy Foreign Minister, can be considered to be carrying different views and contains messages within; they say that Moscow is negotiating, and buying and selling, on the Syrian issue. The strongest of these statements was issued by President Putin, who talked about the need to “determine the future and ensure the security of all the participants of the domestic political process”, i.e. ensure the security of affiliates to the regime, and al-Assad himself. Putin’s most striking remarks came in his interview with a Russian television station, when he said: “We treat everyone with equal respect. We also get on well with Saudi Arabia and other countries; I have cultivated a warm personal relationship with the custodian of the two Islamic shrines”. This reference alone is worthy of interest, especially after the statements exchanged between Saudi Arabia and Russia on Syria!

Of course, it cannot be said that these recent statements, which have begun to hint of the post-Assad phase, are just a public relations campaign to embellish the image of Russia in the region. Russia has also returned today to talk about the need to hold a conference on Syria on its territory, and the possibility of returning to the UN Security Council once again. The facts on the ground confirm that Russia is not acting now just to improve its image, given America’s threat that Washington will work with its allies to support the Syrian opposition, and of course the notable French moves. Yet there is something else that confirms what I am saying here, which I heard from an informed source, namely that Moscow has passed on specific questions via a third party to an Arab state that is influential and active in seeking to defend the Syrians and protect them from al-Assad’s killing machine. According to my source, Russia has asked: “If we reach an agreement, where will al-Assad go in the event of him stepping down? Who can guarantee that he will not be prosecuted internationally? Who will ensure Russia’s interests in Syria after al-Assad’s departure?” This is a summary of Russia’s questions, from which we can deduce the following points.

Firstly, it is clear that Moscow has become receptive to the idea of al-Assad’s departure, and this is supported by the fact that President Putin said in his recent television interview: “We realize that this country needs a change, but this doesn’t mean that change should come with bloodshed”. The second observation we can glean from Russia’s questions is that Moscow is not interested in who will succeed al-Assad, in terms of the individual or the regime, but it is only concerned with preserving its own interests there. Here it is worth recalling Sergey Lavrov’s statement a few days ago, after his meeting with the US Secretary of State, when he said that the sanctions imposed on al-Assad and Iran have started to have an impact on the Russian banking sector, i.e. that the Syrian issue is economic as well as political.

The question that must be asked here is: Would it be wrong to negotiate with Moscow now to ensure the departure of al-Assad? The answer is simple: we should try, for what is certain is that the price is low and will only get lower!