Russia holds the 'highest value card' in Syria -- and is nowhere near ready to play it

Two Western intelligence sources told The Financial Times last week that Russia sent an envoy to Syria late last year to ask President Bashar al-Assad to step down, raising questions about whether Moscow’s support for the embattled leader has dwindled over the past four months.

But experts are sceptical that Russian President Vladimir Putin — a staunch supporter of Assad and his regime — would seek the leader’s ouster now, when pro-government forces are finally starting to win consecutive battlefield victories in the Latakia and Aleppo provinces.

“I don’t think that the message Moscow is telling Assad is ‘go’ so much as, ‘You may have to go,'” Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security affairs and professor of global affairs at New York University, told Business Insider.

“At this stage, the Kremlin has nothing to gain from Assad stepping down and potentially much to lose as there would be a difficult transition,” Galeotti added. “This is one of their highest value cards: They will only play it when they know they will gain something concrete in return.”

Moscow was quick to deny reports that it ever asked Assad to step down. But the extent of Russia’s support for the London-educated autocrat has been disputed. Some analysts insist that Putin is not as interested in preserving Assad as he is in preserving the state institutions the Assad clan has erected over the course of its nearly 45-year reign.

Those institutions and the people who control them have allowed Russia to retain its port of Tartous, the only warm-water port Russia retained after the collapse of the Soviet Union and a key foothold for Moscow to continue projecting power into the Mediterranean.

Some claim, however, that those institutions would cease to exist without Assad.

“The biggest myth out there is the existence of ‘state institutions’ separate from Assad,” Tony Badran, a Middle East expert at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, told Business Insider in October.

To that end, many experts insist Russia’s stake in Syria is much bigger than Tartus.

“It is the perception of thwarting violent regime change — not a naval gas pump in Tartous — that is most important to Vladimir Putin,” Frederic C. Hof, a former special adviser for transition in Syria under President Barack Obama and now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, wrote in The Huffington Post on Monday.

Maintaining that perception is important, some experts say, because it helps Russia present itself to the international community as an agent of stability and bulwark against terrorism. (Moscow has long considered any and all opponents to Assad’s regime, including those supported by the US, to be “terrorists.”)

That Russia sees the only alternative to an Assad regime as a power vacuum dominated by rebels hostile to Moscow’s interests means, implicitly, that Assad must keep his seat in Damascus — at least, as Putin has insisted, until Syrians vote him out of power in a national election.

“There is not the slightest evidence that Putin wants Assad to leave,” Mark Kramer, the program director of the Project on Cold War Studies at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, told Business Insider on Friday.”The whole purpose of Russia’s intervention in Syria was to stabilise Assad’s regime and strengthen its hold on power.”

He added: “The notion that Putin designated the head of military intelligence to deliver such a momentous proposal to the head of a regime Putin wants to stabilise stretches credulity. I don’t attach any credence to it.”

Other experts have noted, too, that if Putin really wanted Assad out of power, attempts at a transition would have been made long ago.

“If Putin wanted to push forward a transition he could use the large amount of leverage Russia has now as Assad’s de facto Air Force,” Boris Zilberman, a Russia expert at the DC-based think tank Foundation for Defence of Democracies, told Business Insider.

“These stories keep popping up but talks continue to stagnate and Assad seems to be entrenched,” he added.

Indeed, one of the opposition’s central demands — that peace negotiations address, first and foremost, Assad’s transition out of power — has reportedly been sidelined in favour of a joint Russian-Iranian plan. That proposal would establish a “national unity government,” the composition of which would be decided by Syrian voters in an election monitored by the United Nations.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has reportedly been pressuring the main opposition council, the Saudi-backed High Negotiating Committee, to accept this plan before attending Friday’s peace talks in Geneva.

In that sense, the US has aligned itself with Russia, to some extent — at the risk of alienating the rebels — in an effort to get everyone to the negotiating table. That risk could feasibly be alleviated, however, by hinting about Russia’s supposed flexibility on Assad’s future.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Zilberman, of the FDD, said. “Until then, it’s messaging.”

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