Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has had very few international allies since the civil war began, and Russia was among the most important. Russia seems to be stepping back in recent days, however, downsizing its embassy staff and withdrawing key “specialists” from Latakia.
In Latakia, the reports are that some 100 Russian specialists were withdrawn from the country and not replaced. There was no official explanation given, though the recent al-Qaeda moves against the Latakia Province may well have convinced Russia it was no longer a safe place for their personnel.
Some Western officials are speculating the recent Russian shift reflects their efforts to placate the West and get some sanctions removed, though it could just as easily reflect a Russian effort to reduce its exposure to the war-torn nation, at a time when even their embassy staff is down to essential personnel only for security reasons.
Whatever the reason, Syria is said to be trying to convince Russia to move back into the country more heavily, with Syria sending its defense minister to Iran to try to talk their other key ally, Iran, into pressuring Russia to do more to aid Assad.
Russia has long been Syria’s biggest ally, centering on their desire to maintain access to their only Mediterranean base, in the Syrian city of Tartus. With Assad’s forces increasingly losing to both ISIS and al-Qaeda, it may be that Russia believes Syria is a lost cause.