MOSCOW – Russian officials, who have strenuously resisted U.S.-led efforts to push Syrian President Bashar Assad from power, are beginning to question whether the beleaguered leader can hang on, but say they have little influence over him.
Even though Russia has been a close Syrian ally for decades, officials and analysts acknowledge that they have limited insight to Assad’s true situation and mindset. Although some fear that Russia missed a chance to help find a solution to the conflict, now in its 17th month, others say that it never had that kind of clout.
Still, Moscow appears to have at least one more card to play: an offer of asylum if Assad chooses to ask for it.
The Kremlin quickly denied such a suggestion recently by its ambassador to France. But the comment was widely regarded as a trial balloon, and a Foreign Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity indicated that Russia could offer asylum if Assad requested it.
“In daily consultations, Assad keeps telling us he is still very much in control,” the official said. “We are trying to ascertain for ourselves whether the point of no return has been reached, and frankly we are not so sure either way anymore.”
The first sign that Russia is abandoning Assad would be a decision to evacuate its citizens, the official said, and that could soon be followed by the Syrian leader’s departure.
On Saturday, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov denied that any asylum plans were being made, telling journalists, “We are not even thinking about it.”
Russia’s objections to the campaign to oust Assad have had little to do with loyalty to a longtime ally or unease over a loss of influence in the Middle East, analysts and officials said. Instead, the Kremlin fears what it sees as a broader pattern of the West using its political and military power to squeeze out leaders friendly to Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin regards his country’s decision last year not to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi as a serious mistake, analysts say. An air campaign led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was crucial for the rebels who captured and executed the longtime Libyan leader, and analysts say Russia got nothing for its cooperation.
“What Russia is really firmly against is the Libyan precedent becoming a norm, when everyone votes for some sanctions and then the most powerful military alliance steps into in a local conflict supporting one side in it and helping it win,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs.
“The rebels should have been grateful to Russia, but the first thing they said after their victory and Gadhafi’s murder was that Russian and Chinese companies are no longer welcome in Libya,” he said.