Russia will countenance an Assad exit in
Syria, but not yet
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[June 30, 2016]
By Andrew Osborn and Christian Lowe
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia will countenance
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad leaving office, but only when it is
confident a change of leader will not trigger a collapse of the Syrian
government, sources familiar with the Kremlin's thinking say.
Getting to that point could take years, and in the meantime Russia
is prepared to keep backing Assad, regardless of international
pressure to jettison him, those sources said.
Such steadfast support is likely to further complicate already
stalled peace talks with Assad's opponents and sour relations with
Washington which wants the Syrian leader gone.
"Russia is not going to part company with Assad until two things
happen," Sir Tony Brenton, Britain's former ambassador to Russia,
"Firstly, until they are confident he won't be replaced with some
sort of Islamist takeover, and secondly until it can be guaranteed
that their own position in Syria, their alliance and their military
base, are sustainable going forward."
The Kremlin, which intervened last year to prop up Assad, fears
turmoil in his absence, thinks his regime too fragile for major
change, and believes there's much fighting to do before a
transition, say multiple Russian foreign policy sources.
Russia and the United States are co-sponsors of peace talks between
the warring sides in the Syria conflict. Those talks, currently on
hold, have so far carefully skirted the question of whether a peace
deal would require Assadís departure, so negotiations could
theoretically limp along despite the contradictions between the
positions of Moscow and Washington.
Moscow has signaled its support for Assad has limits. Russian
diplomats have said the Kremlin is backing the Syrian state, not him
personally. President Vladimir Putin has said it would be worth
considering how members of the opposition could be incorporated into
Syrian government structures.
Such talk has fueled Western hopes that Russia might help broker
Assad's exit sooner rather than later.
But sources close to the Kremlin say there are no meaningful signs
Russia is ready to cut him loose anytime soon.
"I don't see any changes now (in Russia's position on Assad," said
Elena Suponina, a senior Middle East analyst at the Moscow-based
Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, which advises the Kremlin.
"It's the same and why change it?"
On the contrary, state media, which toes the Kremlin's line,
suggests Russia is instead doubling down on Assad and trying to shut
down any U.S. attempts to discuss his future.
Dmitry Kiselyov, presenter of the main weekly TV news show Vesti
Nedeli, told viewers this month that a surprise visit to Syria by
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu was a message to Washington
to stop trying to pressure Moscow over Assad.
"Shoigu's visit and his meeting with Assad is a definite signal from
Russia," said Kiselyov, reputed to be one of Putin's favorite
"Who is it the Americans want to see in Assad's place? Nobody in
Washington, including Obama, has explained."
Fyodor Lukyanov, a foreign policy expert close to the Kremlin who
edits the Russia in Global Affairs journal, said there had been talk
inside the Russian government about Assad's future and that he
thought a deal was there to be done one day.
[to top of second column]
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (C) joins Syrian army soldiers for
Iftar in the farms of Marj al-Sultan village, eastern Ghouta in
Damascus, Syria, in this handout picture provided by SANA on June
26, 2016. SANA/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo
But he told Reuters Russia's current position was "wait and see",
that the Kremlin wanted to first see who became the next U.S.
president, and that it would need a lot of time to come up with a
plausible alternative to Assad if and when it wanted to.
"How do we know if we remove him the whole system is not going to
collapse," said Lukyanov. "There is a risk of that."
The Kremlin says thousands of Russian and former Soviet citizens are
fighting in Islamic State ranks and that they must be defeated in
Syria and Iraq to prevent them from returning home to launch
It casts Assad, whose father Hafez was a longtime Moscow ally in the
Soviet era, as its chief partner in that battle.
Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International
Affairs Council, a Moscow-based foreign policy think tank close to
the Russian Foreign Ministry, said there was not a lot of sympathy
for Assad personally inside Russian foreign policy circles.
But he said Moscow had to position itself as an important and
victorious player and that Assad was part of that equation for now.
"You must remember the other side of the coin," he said. "Russia is
important because it has relations with the Syrian regime so if it
sacrificed that relationship it might cease to be a player."
Tarja Cronberg, a Russia expert who used to be a Finnish government
minister, said Russia might agree to a deal on Assad's exit that
retained key parts of the state's structure and political elite
while integrating opposition politicians.
But finding an arrangement that combined those elements would not be
easy or quick.
"The question really is how to create stability and change at the
same time," she said.
For now, Brenton, the former British ambassador, said in the eyes of
Putin and his advisers Assad's role as a bulwark against radical
Islam trumped everything else.
"For them, Assad, for all his disadvantages and for all his
bloodiness and unpleasantness, is preferable to yet another country
falling into Islamist hands," he said.
(Editing by Peter Graff)
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