For two years, Russia gave increasingly crucial military and diplomatic support to Syria’s beleaguered President Bashar al-Assad as the Syrian civil war deepened.
Now, Russia is pressuring its ally to give up its cherished chemical weapons arsenal. In rapid succession over the last week, Syria’s government acknowledged possessing chemical weapons, signed a treaty banning their production, possession and use, and, on Friday handed over an inventory of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile to international monitors in The Hague.
Rene Nyberg, a former Finnish ambassador in Moscow, says he is stunned by the turn of events.
“The move has been decisive,” he said. “Actually forcing Assad to give his bomb away. By bomb, I mean chemical weapons. Now that is a major move.”
Russia, the United States and Ukraine are volunteering experts and equipment to help Syria meet a mid-2014 deadline of destroying all its chemical weapons. President Assad told Fox News this week that this destruction project could cost $1 billion.
Chemical weapons destruction is one area where Russia, heir to the Soviet Union, stands on equal footing with the United States.
Nyberg has followed Russia’s chemical weapons destruction program since the 1990s. “Russia has capability and experience in chemical weapons destruction, and, clearly, they would be able to give a helping hand here,” he said.
But some question whether the Kremlin will keep pressuring Assad to destroy such a powerful military asset. All week long, President Vladimir Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov cast doubt on Western allegations that it was Assad's soldiers who fired sarin gas last month at opposition neighborhoods in Damascus.
Konstantin von Eggert is a Russian journalist in Moscow.
“There is no guarantee - and Putin said it himself - that Assad will actually follow or live up to all the agreements he may sign,” said von Eggert, who stepped down last month as editor-in-chief of Kommersant FM Radio. “It is a big gamble. And I think that, while today Mr. Putin is in the limelight and being treated as a political rock star, the future might not be as kind to Russian diplomacy if the deal falls apart.”
As co-signer with the United States in the disarmament accord, Russia now is a player in Syria’s weapons destruction process. Analysts wonder whether the Kremlin will take the next step: pressuring President Assad to accept a political solution to Syria’s civil war.
On Saturday, Syrian activists said government troops backed by militia fighters have killed at least 15 people during a raid on a Sunni village in the center of the country.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said two women and a child were among those killed in the attack on Sheik Hadid village.
The group said the fighters used guns and knives to kill the residents, calling the raid a "massacre." It said it is not clear if the rest of the men killed were rebel fighters or civilians.
On Friday, London’s Guardian newspaper printed what sounded like a cease-fire call by Syria’s Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil. Within hours his own party disavowed his remarks.
Russia and the United States are pushing for Syrian peace talks in Geneva. The Obama administration has had a hard time getting Syria’s rebels to sit down and talk peace.
In turn, Von Eggert questions whether Russia can pressure President Assad to agree to step down at the end of his second 7-year presidential term, next May.
“Forcing a political solution on Assad is beyond the means of Putin, Obama, just as it is beyond the means of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to force anything on the Syrian rebels,” Von Eggert said.
But President Putin and other Kremlin officials have said they worry about Syria’s chaos infecting the region, and inevitably southern Russia. After two and a half years of civil war, 2 million Syrians have taken refuge in neighboring countries and another 4 million are internally displaced.
On Friday, Sergei Smirnov, first deputy director of Russia’s Federal Security Service, said that as many as 400 Russian jihadists are fighting inside Syria on the rebel side. Most of these come from the Caucasus, an overwhelmingly Muslim area of Russia that is wracked by a low level, but steady guerrilla insurgency.
“Russia’s logic must be that you do not want to have a failed state in your surroundings. Syria is so close to the Caucasus that inevitably it would reflect in the Caucasus,” Nyberg said.
Time will tell whether the Kremlin will take the decisive steps to force the Assad government to accept a plan for peace.