Mikhail Bogdanov, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister, was the center of worldwide attention yesterday, following a statement he made which was perceived as a major departure from Russia's hitherto staunch support for Bashar Assad. Then came the usual stream of "clarifications," semi-denials and "out of context" explanations by Russian governmental sources, and with them the inevitable confusion. Did he mean it? Was he authorized to say it?
Well, I have never been present in any session of the Russian Foreign Ministry, but I am taking the risk of assessing that the high echelons there are very satisfied today with what happened. And this is because with one statement, Russia positioned itself back in the diplomatic game involving Syria and the fate of Bashar Assad.
The key element in the Russian somewhat-clumsy attempts to refer to Bogdanov's statement was the emphasis on the need to find a political solution to the crisis. In fact, what the Russians are saying is that they want to be partners to such a solution, that they want to be recognized as a legitimate player in the diplomatic game, and that all this is a reflection of their realization that Bashar Assad's regime is doomed, and they, the masters of real politics, do not want to commit an act of diplomatic Harakiri by supporting this lost cause to the very bitter end. No, this is not what Vladimir Putin is all about. He is not a loser, and he has no reason and/or interest to be viewed as the last protector of a third world dictator, who is already acknowledged as an untouchable pariah. It may not be too much of a daring prediction to suggest that Putin's recent visit in Turkey had a lot to do with Syria and possible political solutions there.
Russia's support of Bashar Assad had nothing to do with ideology, nor with sentiment of any kind, not also in appreciation of Hafiz Assad's traditional alliance with the Soviet Union. In Moscow they must remember that the old Assad did a lot of diplomatic business with the U.S. when it suited him. So, the support for Bashar had everything to do with the need to demonstrate that America could not expect to have a free ride in the Middle East, and this is a major feature of Russia's Middle East policy.
It is the same consideration which has been the main motivator of the Russian approach towards Iran. In this case too, Russian actual policy has more in it than what meets the eye. Sure, the Russians have naval presence in Syria, which they want to maintain, and this is an important matter for them, but not the most significant.
The problem for Russia is that they are having very few options in their diplomatic bag. Bashar is the obvious loser, and nothing can now save him. So, the Russians can offer him a safe passage from Damascus to Moscow, something which may cost them with a lot of PR points, but could still portray them as the power which prevented the huge bloodshed which is behind the door. They can claim that they are the ones who put effective pressure on Bashar to evade the use of chemicals, and all this may be of importance, but what they really want is a political solution that may guarantee them a measure of influence in the post-Assad Syria. It may be too late for that to happen, as their continuing support for Bashar alienated the Syrian rebels and their Arab backers such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar beyond repair.
There still may be two powers which could be interested in offering the Russians a respectable way out of the Syrian embarrassment. Turkey is one of them, but much more significant it is the U.S. On the face of it, the Americans may not have any incentive in doing it, as they may prefer to see the Russians licking their wounds and dealing with what can be a great humiliation for them. But that may be a cold war line of thinking, and not one which is in conformity with "the come from behind," that according to commentators well-known for their support of President Obama, is going to reign supreme in America's Middle East policy in the second term.
The day after in Syria may prove to be the biggest challenge for American policy with regard to this country. Up to now, the Obama administration can register its handling of the Syrian crisis as a success, as America wanted Bashar out, and this is just behind the door. Yet, the complications of the situation are such that the U.S. may do better in dealing with it, by trying to co-opt all those who could facilitate the transition from Assad to a new Syria. Iran, for sure, could not help and should be out. Russia clearly could. It may be worth trying, therefore, to read between the lines of Bogdanov's statement and start engaging the Russians who talk about a political solution, then give them the opportunity to prove their point.