Is Russia Preparing To Cut Its Losses In Syria?

Recent comments from Russian officials suggest that the nation may be preparing to cut its longtime ally loose.

Russia Syria Flags

Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to be hedging his bets when it comes to his country’s heretofore strong support of the regime of Bashar al-Assad:

Russia realizes changes in Syria are needed but is concerned that the push to unseat President Bashar Assad’s regime could plunge the country even deeper into violence, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday.

Putin’s assessment came just a week after Russia’s top envoy for Syria was quoted as saying Assad’s forces were losing control of the country. Although the Foreign Ministry backpedaled on that statement, analysts have suggested for months that the Kremlin is resigned to losing its longtime ally.

At his annual hours-long news conference, Putin said Moscow stands for a settlement that would “prevent the country from breakup and an endless civil war. “Agreements based on a military victory can’t be effective,” he said.

Russia has repeatedly blocked international attempts to step up pressure on the Assad regime as it fights an increasingly strong armed opposition. That has brought substantial criticism of Russia as effectively supporting the regime, but Russia has said its stance isn’t aimed at propping up Assad.

“We are not preoccupied that much with the fate of the Assad regime; we realize what’s going on there and that the family has been in power for 40 years,” Putin said. “Undoubtedly, there is a call for changes.”

This isn’t exactly a call for Assad to step down, obviously. However, along with last week’s statement from the Russian Ambassador to Syria it suggests that the powers-that-be in Moscow are seeing the same things that the rest of the world is seeing and coming to largely the same conclusion. The Assad regime is, by and large, doomed at this point. The only question is what follows. There are two alternatives. Down one road, the civil war ends and the rebels take over the country. Even under that scenario, Syria is likely to see many of the same problems that have developed in post-revolutionary states like Libya and Egypt, where the various parties involved in overthrowing the old regime have begun to fight among themselves. Down another road, lies the possibility that the Assad regime and its Alawaite loyalists will retreat to the nation’s Northwest, which has a heavily Alawaite population and a terrain that is very defensible. In that case, we’re looking at the possibility of a continuing sectarian war that spills across Syria’s borders with Turkey and Lebanon and causes a whole host of other problems.

Indeed, a United Nations report out today indicates that the war is becoming far more sectarian:

Fighters from around the world have filtered into Syria to join a civil war that has split along sectarian lines, increasingly pitting the ruling Alawite community against the majority Sunni Muslims, U.N. human rights investigators said on Thursday.

The deepened sectarian divisions in Syria may diminish prospects for any post-conflict reconciliation even if President Bashar al-Assad is toppled. And the influx of foreign fighters raises the risk of the war spilling into neighboring countries, riven by the same sectarian fault lines that cut through Syria.

“As battles between government forces and anti-government armed groups approach the end of their second year, the conflict has become overtly sectarian in nature,” the investigators led by Brazilian expert Paulo Pinheiro said in an updated report.

As a result, they said, more civilians were seeking to arm themselves in the conflict, which began 21 months ago with street demonstrations demanding democratic reform and evolved into an armed insurgency bent on toppling Assad.

“What we found in the last few months is that the minorities that tried to stay away from the conflict have begun arming themselves to protect themselves,” Karen Abuzayd, a member of the group, told a news conference in Brussels.


Most of the “foreign fighters” slipping into Syria to join rebel groups, or fight independently alongside them, are Sunnis from other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, the U.N. investigators found, reporting on their findings after their latest interviews conducted in the region.

“They come from all over, Europe and America, and especially the neighbouring countries,” said Abuzayd, adding that names from 29 states had been recorded so far.

This is precisely what happened in Libya over a much shorter period of time, and the consequences of having all those outside fighters has been apparent for the entire year since the downfall of the regime there. In part, it has resulted in instability in other parts of Africa, most particularly Mali, as foreign fighters have used Libya as a base of operations for strikes across the border. If the same thing were to happen in Syria, which borders Iraq, Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon, it would have far more serious consequences for the region. Obviously, it’s in the interests of all concerned that any regime change in Damascus be as peaceful as possible, and perhaps these statements from Russia indicate that they are willing to support an international effort designed to persuade Assad to step down peacefully. Whether that will succeed is, of course, another question.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. michael reynolds says:

    It would be extremely helpful if the Russians joined us in an international effort to encourage — very strongly encourage — a peaceful post-Assad transition to a secular, pluralistic state. Without major international muscle from us, the Turks, Jordanians, Saudis and Russians this is very likely to devolve still further into a second round of civil war, and eventually maybe into a free-for-all with moderate Sunnis against radical Sunnis against Shiites and Christians.

    It would be nice to see Assad hanging from piano wire, but man, what a potential fwcking disaster this could become. So much worse potentially than Libya.

  2. CB says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Would a comparison to the war in Lebanon be in order? I see that spectre being raised more and more.

  3. @CB:

    In a worst case scenario, Lebanon might be a good analogy. There, you’ve got the Christians, Muslims, and Druze who have been fighting off and on for decades. In Syria, you’ve got the Sunni Muslims, the Shia Muslims, the Alawaites (who follow some but not all Muslim beliefs and practices), the Christians, and the Kurds.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    I’ll go see what the Russian language media are saying.

    I don’t know where people are getting the idea that Assad is losing. Looks more like a draw to me, in circumstances in which an intervention of the sort we engaged in Libya wouldn’t be particularly useful.

    Here’s what Patrick Cockburn has to say:

    Washington wants Assad out, but is having difficulty riding the Sunni revolutionary tiger. The Western powers have long hoped for a split in the Syrian elite, but so far there is little sign of this happening. “If you take defections as a measure of political cohesion, then there haven’t been any serious ones,” said a diplomat in Damascus.

    Syria today resembles Iraq nine years ago in another disturbing respect. I have now been in Damascus for 10 days, and every day I am struck by the fact that the situation in areas of Syria I have visited is wholly different from the picture given to the world both by foreign leaders and by the foreign media. The last time I felt like this was in Baghdad in late 2003, when every Iraqi knew the US-led occupation was proving a disaster just as George W Bush, Tony Blair and much of the foreign media were painting a picture of progress towards stability and democracy under the wise tutelage of Washington and its carefully chosen Iraqi acolytes.

    The picture of Syria most common believed abroad is of the rebels closing in on the capital as the Assad government faces defeat in weeks or, at most, a few months. The Secretary General of Nato, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said last week that the regime is “approaching collapse”. The foreign media consensus is that the rebels are making sweeping gains on all fronts and the end may be nigh. But when one reaches Damascus, it is to discover that the best informed Syrians and foreign diplomats say, on the contrary, that the most recent rebel attacks in the capital had been thrown back by a government counteroffensive. They say that the rebel territorial advances, which fuelled speculation abroad that the Syrian government might implode, are partly explained by a new Syrian army strategy to pull back from indefensible outposts and bases and concentrate troops in cities and towns.”

  5. @Dave Schuler:

    I would tend to agree that, for the moment at least, the situation in Syria is mostly a draw. However, in some sense, that strikes me as being a loss for the Assad regime to the extent that the odds that they’ll ever really be able to crush the opposition seems to be pretty low at this point.

    The important question for the international community at this point, really, is where things go from here. To be honest, though, I don’t see any good outcomes at all.

  6. Ron Beasley says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I think we have all known for months that this was not going to end well.