Is Moscow secretly plotting with Washington to oust Bashar Assad? This has been the tale of world diplomacy for the past month at least, with US and GB pointing at ongoing negotiations with Moscow to solve the crisis (last chapter would be Obama-Putin meeting at Los Cabos), and Russia (mainly foreign minister Lavrov) repeteadly denying any talks on possible compromise with US partners about the fate of syrian leader. Today, Vladimir Putin is visiting Israel: Syria and Iran will be in focus at meetings.
I have no magic clues. But judging from russian state media, something is undoubtedly changing in Cremlin’s attitude and tack towards Damascus issue. For the first time ever, in the past two months we are seeing syrian oppositioners invited at press conferences and tv shows dedicated to Syrian issue, once dominated by official representatives. On march 31 on State Russian TV Channel 1, the front post of Cremlin’s propaganda, Maxim Shevchenko’s show V Kontexte dedicated to the tragedy of Hula, saw sitting side by side in studio not only the syrian ambassador in Moscow and a Duma pro-Assad member, but also 3 critical voices: a head of syrian opposition-diaspora in Russia and former SSSR, a think thank well balanced analyst, and Konstantin von Eggert, Kommersant journalist and russian BBC, i.e. ‘pro western’. 2 weeks later, an umpteenth press conference about Syria at RIA NOVOSTI (state news agency) hq – usually organized to offer a platea to the so called ‘syrian echelon in Russia’ (pro Assad forces, also invited from Syria), for the first time ever invited opposition guests.
Intrigued, I asked to an inner russian state tv source (also pro-alawite) if this all is a “sign” of a shift. And I unexpectedly got a confirm: “Yes, our sly power is trading with the Americans. And, believe me,they’re ready to sell the Syrians if offered something in change”. So Moscow would be just waiting to be sure to get the best counterpart to make the deal.
But receiving something ‘worthy’ in exchange (such as US abandoning european missile defense project, i.e.) is not enough for Russia. Its main goal in all this months of talks has been to avoid a new “libyan scenario”. As the same von Eggert variously commented recently, “Moscow’s adamant (until recently) stance on Syria has a lot to do with arms sales to Damascus and the Russian naval station in the port of Tartus. But it has even more to do with the Kremlin making a point internationally which is quite simple: ‘Neither the UN, nor any other body or group of countries have the right to decide who should and who should not govern a sovereign state’. If one looks at the Syrian crisis from this angle many of Moscow’s previously inexplicable actions take on a new, clearer meaning”. That’s why “the eventually inevitable departure of Mr. Assad should not look like a regime change”.
I turned to my sources in Syrian embassy in Moscow to make it clearer. They’re usually very talkative in enhancing Russian-Syrian friendship, and in the last year they organized dozens of events and meetings to to showcase it as russian friends’ support to syrian cause. But this time they were unusually still, lacking words. Just back from Tartus, my source mentioned an “ongoing civil war” and “a very sad situation”. Well, this could be part of new Damascus communicating strategy, considering that Syrian gov is now openly admitting that a civil war is going on in the country, thus to underline that both parts are well armed and opposition gets weapons and financing from outside. Anyway, “no public events are scheduled at the Moscow Embassy in the near future”. Closed doors, no guests. Stay tuned.
PS: the picture above is mine – it was taken in Damascus, just out Old Town ancient walls, during my trip in Syria on march-april last year. They all seem to look somewhere far in a distance, standing still, like a premonition. I miss Syria a lot.