I recently viewed a classified Syrian document written by the Syrian intelligence bureau chief stationed at the Syrian embassy in Moscow which analyzed the Russian position towards his country based on his dealings with Russian officials there. In this document, the Syrian intelligence officer wrote that Russia views the Syrian crisis as an opportunity to reassert its regional role.
Viewing this document analytically – which could be right or wrong – it seems that the Syrian intelligence officer’s analysis is backed up by the majority of the stances taken by Russian President Putin, not to mention what is driving this approach. The Russians are seeking a role in the region and a return to the Middle East, which until just two decades ago was a major area of influence for them. In addition to this, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius revealed that his Russian counterpart had told him that “al-Assad will never leave.” This is something that was confirmed by British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who stated that the Russian position has become increasingly intransigent.
According to my information, the Russians previously attempted to talk about a solution that included al-Assad stepping down from power, but in reality they were only seeking to guarantee their “interests” in Syria. This term is flexible, ranging from guaranteeing the continuation of Russia’s contract for its naval facility at Tartus, to the Syrian people guaranteeing to pay al-Assad’s debts, which are estimated in the billions of dollars. Al-Assad used this money to buy weapons and ammunition to kill thousands of Syrian people and fund the regime.
If we put all our information together, it is clear that the Russians are seeking to play a role in the Middle East by backing the Bashar al-Assad regime and then haggling over the price of his ouster in return for multiple interests and obligations. Following this, we will find ourselves facing an even fiercer struggle than the previous one.
Does this truly mean that al-Assad will never leave, particularly as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov officially informed European Ministers that al-Assad will stay in spite of them and in spite of the Syrian people? Of course not, as the Russians could take the decision to abandon him tonight and therefore his ouster would certainly take place in the coming days. Yet, Russia cannot decide to keep al-Assad in power just because a handful of foreign ministers met to discuss the situation. Lavrov, as well as President Putin, are quite aware that it is impossible for al-Assad to remain in power and that his ouster is just a matter of time, and that his regime will certainly not survive beyond mid-2013. However this may cost the deaths of another 50,000 Syrians, as well as the destruction of what remains of the country’s cities. Lavrov’s statement means that the price for al-Assad’s ouster is high, yet this does not mean that he will never leave!
It is no longer so easy for foreign states to decide the fate of other countries in the same manner that the map of the region was drawn up by the Sykes-Picot and San Remo agreements more than ninety years ago. Unrest has become more expensive for major countries and this represents a genuine threat to their stability, regardless of where this is. Evidence of this can be seen in the current conflict taking place in Sub-Saharan Africa. Yes, a new Middle East is being formed, and there will be no room for al-Assad here, regardless of the Kremlin’s decision. The question that must be asked here is: Will the Russians have interests in this new Middle East or not? They have chosen the worst paths to seek a return to the Middle East, namely by choosing to support the worst regime, and more than this, a regime that has little chance of survival. In the past, the Russians were welcome as allies and friends on the region's chessboard i.e. in Egypt, Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Southern Yemen and Algeria. However it seems that their alliance with Iran, Syria and Hezbollah has placed them in a tight corner, and this will only serve to push more regional governments and nations towards the West, not the opposite.
(This article was published in Asharq Alawsat online on Oct. 17, 2012. Abdul Rahman al-Rashed is the general manager of Al Arabiya television.)