The answer from Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova was blunt. Asked on November 3 if saving Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, was a matter of principle for the Russians, Zakharova replied: “Absolutely not, we never said that.”
Driving home the point, she added: “We are not saying that Assad should leave or stay”, declaring that it was up to the Syrian people to decide his fate.
In October, Russia began bombing rebel positions inside Syria, as well as the Islamic State, to prop up an Assad regime facing military defeat. At the end of the month, Moscow’s efforts for an international conference to confirm Assad’s short-term hold on power produced a meeting in Vienna.
But is it now reconsidering that situation and preparing to ditch the Syrian leader? The question deserves more than a yes or no answer. Russia is having to rethink its approach because its political-military strategy to prop up the Assad regime, if not the president, has not been successful. It has also led Moscow to diverge from Assad’s other main ally, Iran.
Assad supporters, both inside and outside Syria, quickly rallied to say that Zakharova’s statement was merely a reiteration of a long-standing Russian position. They cited declarations from Russian president, Vladimir Putin and his officials, throughout 2012, such as: “We aren’t concerned about Assad’s fate, we understand that the same family has been in power for 40 years and changes are obviously needed.”
The line – similar to yesterday’s statement – was that: “this issue has to be settled by the Syrians themselves”.
But then Russia regularly has changed its Syria policy. After Iran and Hezbollah stepped up political, economic, and military intervention for the Assad regime in early 2013, for example, Russia pulled back from that earlier “he can go” rhetoric and began contributing strategic support themselves.