JERUSALEM—A dramatic Russian pullback from support of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria was reported Sunday by a prominent Arabic-language newspaper that said that some 100 senior Russian diplomatic and technical officials stationed in Damascus were flown back to Moscow last week with their families.
Asharq Al-Awsat reported that a shift in Russia’s policy became evident at a recent high-level international meeting of security officials held in a European city. The unpublicized meeting was held to discuss the threat of terrorist groups to international security.
The head of the Russian delegation, asked how Moscow viewed the possibility of a Syria "after Assad," said that "what concerns Russia is to safeguard its strategic interests and secure the future of minorities" in Syria and to ensure that the country remains united. Upon hearing his statement, some delegates left the room to report this apparent retreat to their superiors. Until now, Russia has used its veto on the United Nations Security Council to block any action against the Assad regime.
Riyadh Tabara, a former Lebanese ambassador to the United States, told the newspaper that officials in both Moscow and Washington have begun exploring the possibility of a political solution in Syria that did not involve Assad. "Moscow [wants] guarantees that the regime that will replace Assad’s will safeguard [Russia's] interests in the country," said Tabara.
Many of the Russian officials, who flew home from the coastal city of Latakia, worked in the Assad regime’s operations center in Damascus, in support of Syrian military and security officials. Working with them were Iranian counterparts as well as Hezbollah officials. Russia has been a major prop for the Assad regime, providing it with military supplies and political support.
According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Islamic State now controls some 50 percent of Syria’s territory. Israel’s Channel Two yesterday said that Assad controls only 25 percent of the country.
Ambassador Tabara said the reason for Russia’s change in policy is the rapid shrinking of Damascus’ military base after four years of civil war and the gains made by extremist forces in Syria during the past year.
According to other Gulf and Western sources, the shift is in part a consequence of economic problems that have come in the wake of sanctions imposed on Russia as a result of its actions in Ukraine. The Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, are long-time opponents of the Assad regime and are in economic negotiations with Russia.
The Al-Hayat newspaper quoted senior diplomatic sources as saying that the Russians for the first time are willing to discuss with the Americans details of a proposed transition period in Syria and to discuss the names of military and political officials who might oversee the transition.
Although the United States and Russia share a common objective in seeking a stable regime in Syria, they would have to coordinate any moves with Iran, which has a major stake in the Assad regime, and with Turkey, which likewise has strong interests in its Syrian neighbor. Topping all their agendas will be the question of how to release Syria from the tightening grip of the Islamic State before a post-Assad regime can be established.