x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

What Russia wants to hear about Syria

Russian government chiefs wants to hear Syrian opposition leaders assure them that after Al Assad, Syria will not become an exporter of Islamism.

Abdul Basit Sieda, head of the underperforming Syrian National Council, was in Moscow yesterday for talks with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. Michel Kilo, another leader of the Syrian opposition, was there Monday.

The visitors' goal was to weaken the Russians' tenacious support for Bashar Al Assad, who has presided over months of escalating bloodshed that has killed at least 16,000 Syrians.

This is no simple task. At the United Nations this week, Russian diplomats have been circulating a draft document calling for an extension of the UN's hapless observer mission. That expedition was launched, in April, with an optimism that now seems ludicrous. For weeks the UN crew has been confined to its hotel rooms: Syria is too dangerous for it.

Meanwhile the Russians are deploying more than draft texts: a flotilla of 11 naval vessels is en route to the eastern Mediterranean, and some of them, at least, will dock in Syria.

The Russians have, however, also recently halted arms sales to Mr Al Assad's government. The symbolism of that has resonated widely.

There has been some speculation that Mr Lavrov wants a quiet chat about the shape of a post-Assad Syria. Here it is worthwhile to understand Russia's motivation in backing Mr Al Assad: he has no intrinsic merit in their eyes, nor do trade ties and the little Russian dockyard at Tartus amount to much. Rather, the message coming from Moscow is that the Russians are worried about Islamic fundamentalism.

Mr Al Assad is no friend to Islamism and President Vladimir Putin, concerned about militancy among Russia's own substantial - and sometimes ill-treated - Muslim minority, has little enthusiasm for the rise of Islamist parties in the Middle East.

The problem here is that the Syrian opposition leaders have so few followers that they can offer no plausible guarantees about the shape of a successor state. If Mr Putin could be convinced that the new Syria would not be ruled by Islamists, he would surely be more flexible about regime change.

Mr Putin must be eager to hear someone say convincingly that Syria without Mr Al Assad would not abandon the form of a civil state and become a theocratic exporter of Islamism.

The tragedy is that while Mr Putin awaits reassurance, Syria's civil state is sinking into a state of civil war.