Russia will approve President Bashar al-Assa leaving office in Syria, but only once it's convinced the Syrian government will not collapse when Assad steps down, reports Reuters. It could be a long process, but for the duration, Russia will keep offering support to Assad despite international pressure, say sources close to the Kremlin. This support is suspected to add complications to the already mired peace talks with those opposing Assad, and will also have a negative impact on their relationship with the U.S., who are keen to have the Syrian leader removed.
In the opinion of Sir Tony Benton, two things will have to happen before Russia withdraws its support.
"Firstly, until they are confident he won't be replaced with some sort of Islamist takeover, and secondly until it can be guaranteed that their own position in Syria, their alliance and their military base, are sustainable going forward," he said.
The Kremlin interceded last year to assist Assad and has doubts about the regime's capability to undergo a stable transition. It also believes there's still much fighting to do before change is possible, say Russian sources.
"Short of a miracle, we are not going to have meaningful political talks this summer, and a political transition is effectively out of the question," said Faysal Itani, a fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington. "No one inside Syria actually believes any of these things that are going on in our parallel universe of deadlines and announcements."
The last round of talks came to naught and broke up at the end of April, and the partial ending of fighting brought about by pressure from the U.S. and Russia has also broken down nearly completely, with hostilities resuming once again in many areas.
"The cessation of hostilities has become close to a diplomatic fiction, quite frankly, if you think about the indiscriminate bombing of civilians that continues in Idlib, Aleppo, and the suburbs of Damascus and elsewhere," said Francois Delattre, the French Ambassador to the UN. "Despite some improvement, the humanitarian access remains too little too late in so many respects."
Moscow has indicated its support for Assad is not necessarily for him personally, but rather for the Syrian state, with President Vladimir Putin saying it could well be worth looking into how opposition members could be integrated into the Syrian government. This has led to hopes that Russia may expedite Assad's exit, but sources close to the Kremlin say there are no significant indications of Russia's intent.
State Media, which is largely a mouthpiece for the Kremlin, has hinted towards Russia doubling down on Assad and attempting to mute any U.S. efforts to discuss his future. On the main weekly TV news show, Vesti Nedeli, Dmitry Kiselyov told viewers that a recent visit to Syria by Sergei Shoigu, the Russian Minister of Defense, was intended as a message to Washington to stop pressuring Moscow over Assad.
"Shoigu's visit and his meeting with Assad is a definite signal from Russia," said Kiselyov, known to be one of Putin's favorite journalists.
Brenton said that as far as Putin and his advisers are concerned, Assad's role as a barricade against Islamic radicals is of paramount importance.
"For them, Assad, for all his disadvantages and for all his bloodiness and unpleasantness, is preferable to yet another country falling into Islamist hands," he said.
[Vadim Savitsky/AP Images]