Russian roulette

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a news conference in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has now waded into the debate on Syria’s future, after over 40,000 people have lost their lives in the country’s bloody uprising.

Putin stated that his country was “not concerned about the fate” of President Bashar Assad’s regime, while managing to cavalierly sum up the experience of decades of Baath Party rule, usually as a strong ally of Moscow, as a “family [that] has held power.”

Politicians and analysts have had a field day examining the statements of Russian officials in recent days and weeks; Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, caused a mini-storm when he expressed pessimism about the fate of the Syrian regime, and then claimed he was misunderstood by journalists.

The breathless denials seem weaker in the wake of the comments by Putin, who appears to be of the same opinion: It is time to put some distance between Moscow and Damascus.

Putin’s remarks will be interpreted in several different ways. Undoubtedly, some people will focus on the notion that the Russians are beginning the process of laying the groundwork for a possible deal with the United States and other countries over the departure of the Assad regime. Others might add that Russia has made already moves to secure its interests in a post-Assad era, and is thus signaling that it is time to move on. Still others might say that Putin’s comments reflect a high degree of despair over the lack of options, and an urgent desire to cut the country’s losses.

Whatever the case, Russian officials should realize their country’s latest official stance comes very late in the game. Syrian regime forces continue to wreak havoc across the country and cause unspeakable harm to people’s lives and futures. The thousands of fatalities will never be brought back; small children are incurring the kind of severe injuries that will haunt them the rest of their lives. Syria’s economy and society are incurring massive levels of damage that endanger its very future. No amount of backpedaling now will help salvage Moscow’s reputation in Syria and other Arab countries, after providing the Assad regime with the arms and political support to engage in 21 months of carnage.

If Putin and Russia are truly concerned about the future of Syria, the time for issuing carefully calibrated comments to the media is over. Russian officials should take action immediately to use their influence with Syrian officials to stop the violence, so that Syrians can finally begin the process of healing.

However, any changes in the Russian position aren’t necessarily a political gain for backers of the rebels. The Syrian people have steadily become disillusioned with the inaction of the international community, and will only give credit to the party that truly helps end the nightmare, once and for all.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 21, 2012, on page 7.




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