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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Syria: January 22, 2016

Publication: Putin in Syria
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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Kremlin Denies Claims Russia Asked Assad To Step Down Last Year

The Kremlin has denied claims published in today's Financial Times that Bashar al-Assad had rejected a Russian request that he leave office late last year.

The state-owned TASS news agency reported that Dmitry Peskov, President Putin's press secretary, said "no, this is not so."

Two unnamed "senior Western intelligence officials" reportedly gave the Financial Times details of a trip visit by the late director of the GRU, Igor Sergun. 

According to the report, Sergun proposed Assad step aside as part of a managed transition:

A choreographed transition of power that would maintain the Alawite regime but open the door to realistic negotiations with moderate rebels.

 However, back in mid November, Russian officials were strident in their support for Assad remaining in power, even days after the signing of the Vienna declaration that envisaged a timetable for free elections.

On November 18 Bashar al-Assad told an Italian television station that, in contrast to the plan outlined in Vienna, any timetable for transition would only begin after "defeating terrorism."

Of course, according to Assad, all of the armed opposition is terrorist and therefore there could be no role for them in peace talks. 

Despite this, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, twice reiterated the Kremlin's support for Assad's prerogative in any negotiations.

While the Financial Times today cited claims that Russia had actually become disillusioned with the regime after entering the war directly, and was seeking a way out, the situation on the ground looks very different.

The Russian Air Force is continuing to pound away at the opposition while carrying out fewer strikes on ISIS-held areas. Cooperation between the Russian and Syrian armed forces has been stepped up, with Russian troops providing artillery support, aircraft conducting joint operations, and large numbers of T-90 tanks delivered to the Syrian Army and possibly even their Shia paramilitary allies.

Devastating Russian close air support has helped the regime retake the town of Salma in the hills of Latakia, removing a rebel stronghold. 

Today's article does acknowledge this increase in military support, but suggests that it is in fact a recourse to a plan-b after the failure of diplomatic engagement. 

Meanwhile, says one British diplomat, with no palatable strategy for withdrawal, Russia appears to be doubling down on its military intervention, leaving the prospect of a negotiated peace as far from reality as it has ever been.

But the problem is that no clear date for Sergun's alleged trip is given. The Financial Times reports that he travelled to Damascus "just weeks before his death on January 3," but as early as November 17, a Russian Defence Ministry official had told Vedomosti that the Russian army was providing artillery fire support in the Homs province.

So at what point did Russia, if the claims are true, shift trajectory to a win-or-nothing solution for the regime? Remember that weeks before the arrival of Russian jets in Latakia, Russian armoured personnel carriers were spotted on film operating with the Syrian Army:

Oryx Blog

The regime's offensive in the Lattakia Governorate continues to reveal previously unknown details about Russia's involvement in the Syrian Civil War. Apart from the sighting of recently delivered Russian BTR-82A infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), new evidence now confirmes Russian military personnel has a key role in leading the offensive on the ground.

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Jan 22, 2016 16:33 (GMT)
-- Pierre Vaux