Russia would accept a Yemen-style power transition in Syria if it has support from the Syrian people, Russia’s deputy foreign minister said on Thursday, in an attempt to distance Moscow from President Bashar al-Assad.
Washington has been pressuring a reluctant Moscow to drop its support for Assad to make way for a political transition and end the bloodshed, but Russia is insisting its not up to them.
“Application of the so-called Yemen scenario to resolve the conflict in Syria is possible only if the Syrians themselves agree to it,” Mikhail Bogdanov said. “If this scenario is discussed by Syrians themselves and is adopted by them, we are not against it.”
After about a year of mass protests urging the U.S.-supported dictator of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh to resign, Yemenis voted in February in a referendum on a U.S.-backed transition deal to formally depose Saleh and elect his deputy Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, who was the only name on the ballot.
The deal granted Saleh total immunity for the crimes he committed while on Washington’s dole and despite the sham, single-candidate “election,” the U.S. praised it as democracy. The Obama administration then dutifully restarted military and economic aid to the Yemeni regime and is using it in the same way it used Saleh.
Russia is giving lip service to democracy in the same way U.S. officials did in the case of Yemen. Moscow is likely to agree with a Yemen-style transition if their interests can be maintained in Syria – namely, selling Russian arms to an allied client that would help push back against U.S. regional dominance, keeping the naval power Russia has in their access to Syrian ports, etc.
But replacing Assad with another dictatorial client probably would not pacify the opposition fighters and would probably not be an attractive way forward for most Syrians.
For now, Russia continues its support of the Assad regime given the valuable geo-political influence that relationship affords them. The only way they would give that up is if they could be assured that Washington and its allies would not try to exploit a political transition for their own interests, which is unlikely.
Furthermore, Russia is not likely to be persuaded by Western powers to drop its support of Assad, especially since support for the rebel militias – who have also committed serious crimes – from the West and the Gulf Arab states is unlikely to end in kind. Foreign meddling on behalf of all sides in Syria has been instrumental in prolonging the conflict by emboldening both sides and making a political settlement more remote.