At the end of his Wall Street Journal column last week on the Syrian protests and Russia’s investment in keeping the Assad regime in power, Fouad Ajami writes: “More likely, the contest will be decided on the ground. Both the regime and the oppositionists who have paid so dearly in this cruel struggle are betting that time is on their side.”
The Assad regime will find much more comfort along those lines in today’s visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov than will the opposition. Here is how Lavrov’s meeting with Bashar al-Assad is being characterized in the media:
“We have had a very productive visit with the leadership of Syria,” Mr. Lavrov said, according to Russia’s Ria Novosti news service. “We have confirmed our preparedness to facilitate a rapid end to the crisis based on the positions set out in the Arab League initiative. In particular, the president of Syria gave assurance that he is fully committed to an end to violence, no matter its source.”
Mr. Lavrov also said that Mr. Assad was prepared to hold talks with representatives of Syria’s opposition. “It is clear that efforts for ending the violence should be accompanied by dialogue between political forces,” he said. “Today we received confirmation from the president of Syria that he is prepared to cooperate in this effort.”
The first comment–“no matter its source”–is intended to placate Assad by implying the protesters are to blame for the violence that has killed more than 5,000 of them at the regime’s hands during the last year, according to United Nations numbers. The second comment is an indication that Lavrov did exactly what he was sent to do: play for time.
Russia has a presidential election next month, and if the momentum of the protesters in Moscow is any indication, there will be hundreds of thousands of Russians of all ages and incomes in the streets–again–between then and now. Vladimir Putin is watching Syria carefully. If Assad falls thanks to the protesters, it will send a signal to Russians that patience and pressure pay off. If Assad continues his bloodbath with Putin’s very public support–and Russia’s Security Council veto will be seen as just that–Putin will look even more distasteful and reprehensible to his own people.
What Putin needs is for the Syrian opposition to look “reasonable” by holding back and then sitting down to chat with Assad. They will almost surely get nothing out of it, but it will slow the momentum of the demonstrations and show Russia’s protesters that filling the streets alone cannot bring change.
It is, of course, for the Syrian people to decide if they want negotiations with Assad, and if so under what conditions. They shouldn’t reject a deal they might otherwise take just because the Russians seem to like it. But Lavrov probably couldn’t care less. He got what he came for.