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Is Russia Preparing To Cut Its Losses In Syria?

Source: OTB

Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to be hedging his bets when it comes to his country’s heretofore strong support of the regime of Bashar al-Assad:

Russia realizes changes in Syria are needed but is concerned that the push to unseat President Bashar Assad’s regime could plunge the country even deeper into violence, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday.

Putin’s assessment came just a week after Russia’s top envoy for Syria was quoted as saying Assad’s forces were losing control of the country. Although the Foreign Ministry backpedaled on that statement, analysts have suggested for months that the Kremlin is resigned to losing its longtime ally.

At his annual hours-long news conference, Putin said Moscow stands for a settlement that would “prevent the country from breakup and an endless civil war. “Agreements based on a military victory can’t be effective,” he said.

Russia has repeatedly blocked international attempts to step up pressure on the Assad regime as it fights an increasingly strong armed opposition. That has brought substantial criticism of Russia as effectively supporting the regime, but Russia has said its stance isn’t aimed at propping up Assad.

“We are not preoccupied that much with the fate of the Assad regime; we realize what’s going on there and that the family has been in power for 40 years,” Putin said. “Undoubtedly, there is a call for changes.”

This isn’t exactly a call for Assad to step down, obviously. However, along with last week’s statement from the Russian Ambassador to Syria it suggests that the powers-that-be in Moscow are seeing the same things that the rest of the world is seeing and coming to largely the same conclusion. The Assad regime is, by and large, doomed at this point. The only question is what follows. There are two alternatives. Down one road, the civil war ends and the rebels take over the country. Even under that scenario, Syria is likely to see many of the same problems that have developed in post-revolutionary states like Libya and Egypt, where the various parties involved in overthrowing the old regime have begun to fight among themselves. Down another road, lies the possibility that the Assad regime and its Alawaite loyalists will retreat to the nation’s Northwest, which has a heavily Alawaite population and a terrain that is very defensible. In that case, we’re looking at the possibility of a continuing sectarian war that spills across Syria’s borders with Turkey and Lebanon and causes a whole host of other problems.

Indeed, a United Nations report out today indicates that the war is becoming far more sectarian:

Fighters from around the world have filtered into Syria to join a civil war that has split along sectarian lines, increasingly pitting the ruling Alawite community against the majority Sunni Muslims, U.N. human rights investigators said on Thursday.

The deepened sectarian divisions in Syria may diminish prospects for any post-conflict reconciliation even if President Bashar al-Assad is toppled. And the influx of foreign fighters raises the risk of the war spilling into neighboring countries, riven by the same sectarian fault lines that cut through Syria.

“As battles between government forces and anti-government armed groups approach the end of their second year, the conflict has become overtly sectarian in nature,” the investigators led by Brazilian expert Paulo Pinheiro said in an updated report.

As a result, they said, more civilians were seeking to arm themselves in the conflict, which began 21 months ago with street demonstrations demanding democratic reform and evolved into an armed insurgency bent on toppling Assad.

“What we found in the last few months is that the minorities that tried to stay away from the conflict have begun arming themselves to protect themselves,” Karen Abuzayd, a member of the group, told a news conference in Brussels.

(…)

Most of the “foreign fighters” slipping into Syria to join rebel groups, or fight independently alongside them, are Sunnis from other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, the U.N. investigators found, reporting on their findings after their latest interviews conducted in the region.

“They come from all over, Europe and America, and especially the neighbouring countries,” said Abuzayd, adding that names from 29 states had been recorded so far.

This is precisely what happened in Libya over a much shorter period of time, and the consequences of having all those outside fighters has been apparent for the entire year since the downfall of the regime there. In part, it has resulted in instability in other parts of Africa, most particularly Mali, as foreign fighters have used Libya as a base of operations for strikes across the border. If the same thing were to happen in Syria, which borders Iraq, Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon, it would have far more serious consequences for the region. Obviously, it’s in the interests of all concerned that any regime change in Damascus be as peaceful as possible, and perhaps these statements from Russia indicate that they are willing to support an international effort designed to persuade Assad to step down peacefully. Whether that will succeed is, of course, another question.

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