Russia clarifies its position on Syria

Demonstrators protest against president Bashar al-Assad. Picture: Reuters
Demonstrators protest against president Bashar al-Assad. Picture: Reuters
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RUSSIA attempted to backtrack yesterday after its deputy foreign minister said Syrian president Bashar Assad was losing control of the country.

Mikhail Bogdanov was quoted on Thursday by all three leading Russian news agencies as saying: “There is a trend for the government to progressively lose control over an increasing part of the territory,” and adding that “an opposition victory can’t be excluded”.

However, Moscow issued a denial yesterday, saying it was not changing its stance on the embattled regime, saying Mr Bogdanov was referring only to the claims of the “Syrian opposition and its foreign sponsors forecasting their quick victory over the regime in Damascus”.

“In that context, Bogdanov again confirmed Russia’s principled stance that a political settlement in Syria has no alternative,” the ministry’s spokesman, Alexander Lukashevich, said in the statement.

Mr Bogdanov was speaking before the Public Chamber, a Kremlin advisory body. His statement was the first official acknowledgment from Moscow that Mr Assad’s regime may fall.

It is likely to have been seen by the Syrian ruler as a betrayal, further eroding his grip on power amid opposition successes on the ground and recognition of that opposition a number of world powers.

While Mr Bogdanov’s statement seemed to signal Russia’s attempt to begin positioning itself for Mr Assad’s eventual defeat, the foreign ministry’s backtracking on that clearly indicated that Moscow has no intention yet to stop backing its ally.

This was reinforced by Syrian deputy prime minister Qadri Jamil, who was in Moscow yesterday to meet with Mr Bogdanov and foreign minister Sergey Lavrov.

“There have been no changes in Russia’s position,” Mr Jamil told journalists after the meeting. “Russia stands for dialogue and against foreign interference.”

Mr Bogdanov’s comments were quoted verbatim by state-owned Russian news agencies RIA Novosti and ITAR-Tass, and also by Interfax.

Facing questions about Mr Bogdanov’s statement during a briefing yesterday, Mr Lukashevich insisted that there has been no shift in the Russian position on Syria. He said that Moscow is continuing to call for a political dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition on the basis of the agreement reached at an international conference in Geneva in June.

“Our only goal is to end the violence in Syria as quickly as possible, start a dialogue between the Syrians, between the government and the opposition, and work out a formula for advancing a political process,” Mr Lukashevich said. “There hasn’t been and there won’t be any retraction from our principled line on the Syrian affairs.”

Georgy Mirsky, a leading Middle East expert with the Institute for World Economy and International Relations, a foreign policy think-tank supported by the Russian government, said Mr Bogdanov may have slipped up by failing to co-ordinate his statement with Mr Lavrov.

The denial issued by the foreign ministry could have been ordered by president Vladimir Putin, Mr Mirsky added.