After Tillerson Visit, Signs Show Russia Increasingly Fed Up With Assad

Moscow now finds itself in a curious position. It is unlikely to give up on its commitment to the region – and therefore lose face in a part of the world it knows well – but it does appear to be increasingly fed up with Assad

Amie Ferris-Rotman Apr 15, 2017 9:00 AM

(Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File). FILE - In this Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015 file photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, shakes hand with Syrian President Bashar Assad as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, l...

Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, shakes hand with Syrian President Bashar Assad, Oct. 20, 2015. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at far rights. Alexei Druzhinin/AP


MOSCOW – Several months ago, questioning Moscow’s support for its long-time ally in Damascus was unthinkable. But after this week’s visit by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the dynamic could begin to shift, ever so slightly.

Tillerson’s whistle-stop visit to Moscow included a two-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, as well as long sit-downs with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. On Wednesday evening, when speaking to journalists, Tillerson described the Syria crisis as if some backdoor breakthroughs had possibly been discussed. “Our view is that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end, and they have again brought this on themselves,” he said next to Lavrov. “We discussed our view that Russia, as their closest ally in the conflict, perhaps has the best means of helping Assad recognize this reality.” Tillerson added that Assad’s departure should be conducted “in an orderly way.”

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Lavrov, a silver-tongued veteran diplomat for whom the inexperienced Tillerson is the fifth Secretary of State he has worked with, offered seemingly conflicting views on Assad. He both dismissed the idea of ousting a “particular personality” in Syria but also stressed that “we are not staking everything on a personality, on President Assad.” He went even further, suggesting that a new Syrian constitution be drawn up, and a more diverse government formed to match it.

His comments chimed with the shocking revelation last week from Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov that Moscow’s support for Assad was “not unconditional.” The Kremlin’s support for Syria goes back decades (and it has not forgotten Assad’s refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008), but its economy has been battered by low oil prices and U.S. sanctions in response to its involvement in Ukraine’s war and the annexation of Crimea.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson enter a hall during their meeting in Moscow on Wednesday.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, April 12, 2017.ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP

Moscow now finds itself in a curious position. It is unlikely to give up on its commitment to the region – and therefore lose face in a part of the world it knows well – but it does appear to be increasingly fed up with Assad. The chemical weapons attack in early April, which the West blames on Assad and the Syrian regime blames on the rebels, further deteriorated Russian-U.S. ties, and brought Russia and the West to the brink of another crisis (the U.K.’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson canceled his trip to Russia as a result of the chemical weapons attack). It also sparked Washington’s first direct military involvement in Syria, during which it fired 59 Tomahawk missiles on Shayrat air base last week, where both Syria and Russia keep planes. On Thursday, Assad told AFP that the claim that his government used chemical weapons is “100 percent fabrication.”
“If I were Putin, I would be livid with Assad for giving the Americans the excuse to go in,” said Amr Al-Azm, a member of the Syrian opposition and a professor of history at Shawnee State University in Ohio, “but being angry with him and walking out on Assad are two different things.”

Lavrov has asked for an independent investigation into the sarin gas attack that killed at least 90 people in Idlib province. For now, there is no real smoking gun. But if one that proves beyond doubt that Assad’s regime committed the attack is found, Russia will have cornered itself and will most likely need to act. “Are the Russians willing to make that sacrifice? Acting means either telling Assad they are withdrawing support or helping the opposition,” Al-Azm said, adding that the latter was out of the question. Since Syria’s civil war started six years ago, Moscow has provided refuge to several former members of Assad’s government, and is home to a small but lively pro-regime Syrian community. Some are given Russian visas and a right to stay; others live within a gray area without official status. (In contrast, Russia has taken in very few Syrian refugees, a move that continues to attract scorn from human rights groups.)

Thursday’s admission by the Pentagon that the U.S.-backed coalition in Syria had mistakenly killed 18 members of a militia it supports was widely reported across Russian state media. Throughout Moscow’s military involvement in the Syrian conflict, Russia has taken to highlighting incompetent U.S. actions in the Middle East, often holding up the current situation in Iraq as an example of the failures of American democracy.

It is worth noting that no Syria deals or steps forward can be made without the support of the region’s main actors: namely Iran, the Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Moscow counts only two of them as allies and the others as mixed – and often as foes.

This weekend Lavrov will host Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, whom he regularly speaks with by telephone. Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Muallem will join them in a meeting Moscow has said will focus on coordinated trilateral efforts for a political settlement in Syria. But bringing all parties to the table – both Assad’s regime and the opposition – is a tall order and likely to be a long process. The country itself has become highly fractured and experts say it lacks little cohesive structure outside of Damascus. Putin’s leverage over Assad may not even be what he had at the beginning of Russia’s entrance into the conflict, and perhaps does not even amount to much now. This means Moscow may have aligned itself with players who have other agendas to pursue in Syria.

“If Putin is unhappy finding himself in the company with Iran and Hezbollah, this still doesn’t mean that he may concede – he never does when there’s public pressure,” said Maria Lipman, a political analyst in Moscow and editor-in-chief of Counterpoint Journal, published by George Washington University. “Neither is a reliable partner.”

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Assad Opponents Seek Justice for Syria’s War Victims

ISTANBUL — The evidence is staggering.

Three tons of captured Syrian government documents, providing a chilling and extensive catalog of the state’s war crimes, are held by a single organization in Europe. A Syrian police photographer fled with pictures of more than 6,000 dead at the hands of the state, many of them tortured. The smartphone alone has broken war’s barriers: Records of crimes are now so graphic, so immediate, so overwhelming.

Yet six years since the war began, this mountain of documentation — more perhaps than in any conflict before it — has brought little justice. The people behind the violence remain free, and there is no clear path to bring the bulk of the evidence before any court, anywhere.

More than 400,000 people have been killed in the Syrian war. Half the country’s population has been displaced. Syrian human rights groups list more than 100,000 people as missing, either detained or killed. Tens of thousands languish in government custody, where torture, deprivation, filth and overcrowding are so severe that a United Nations commission said they amounted to “extermination,” a crime against humanity.


In Aleppo last July, Syrian civil defense workers rescued a young man from beneath the rubble of a building hit by airstrikes. CreditThaer Mohammed/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But so far, there is only one war-crimes case pending against Syrian officials: filed in Spain, over a man who died in government custody.

No cases have gone to the International Criminal Court. Syria never joined it, so the court’s chief prosecutor cannot start an investigation on her own. The United Nations Security Council could refer a case to the court, but Russia has repeatedly used its veto power to shield Syria from international condemnation. And even if the Council were to take action, President Bashar al-Assad and his top officials are battened down in Damascus, making their arrests difficult, to say the least.

Earlier this month, the outside world was jolted by a chemical attack that killed more than 80 people. In response, President Trump let loose 59 Tomahawk missiles and called Mr. Assad an “animal.”

Victims of the chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun on April 4. More than 80 people died, and President Trump responded with a hail of Tomahawk missiles. CreditAlaa Alyousef, via Associated Press

As Mr. Assad has consolidated his control of Syria’s major cities, some countries that have long opposed him have signaled a new willingness to accept his rule as the fastest way to end the war, encourage refugees to go home and accelerate the fight against the jihadists. As bad as Mr. Assad may be, some argue, Syria would be worse without him.

Mr. Assad’s opponents counter that keeping a head of state with so much blood on his hands perpetuates the war.

The chemical attack was just his most recent atrocity, after years of torture, enforced disappearances, siege warfare and indiscriminate bombing of civilian neighborhoods and hospitals. Such violence will continue as long as Mr. Assad and his security apparatus remain, his enemies say.

“This is not some abstract human rights issue,” said Laila Alodaat, a Syrian human rights lawyer at the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. “This lies at the core of this conflict and of any possible solution or reconciliation. Hundreds of thousands of victims and their families need justice, remedy and assurance that the future will be free from such violations.”

Syria’s war has seen atrocities by all sides. Rebels have shelled civilian neighborhoods, and the jihadists of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have deployed suicide bombers, tortured enemies and executed prisoners, often in well-produced videos.

But the largest number of violations by far have been by the Syrian government and its allies, investigators say, because they wield the apparatus of the state, including a formal military with an air force, extensive security services and networks of prisons.

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One Response to “After Tillerson Visit, Signs Show Russia Increasingly Fed Up With Assad”

  1. daveyone1 Says:

    Reblogged this on World Peace Forum.

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