Bashar Assad’s hope of holding onto some international political cover for his continued operation in Lebanon took a body blow this morning, as his normally reliable trading partner Russia told him that Syria should leave Lebanon as soon as possible:
Russia has increased the pressure on its ally Syria by joining calls for Damascus to withdraw its troops from Lebanon.
Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said: “Syria should withdraw from Lebanon, but we all have to make sure that this withdrawal does not violate the very fragile balance which we still have in Lebanon, which is a very difficult country ethnically.”
America, supported by France, has led international pressure on Syria, particularly through a UN resolution demanding the removal of foreign forces from Lebanon.
Russia has, of late, been somewhat of an apologist for the Syrians, openly questioning the identification of Damascus as a center for terrorists and of Syrian involvement in Palestinian and Iraqi attacks. One would imagine that the sudden discovery last week of 30 ex-Saddam functionaries operating a support network for the carbombing lunatics in Baghdad, including Saddam’s half-brother, might have disabused Russia of its inclination to give Assad the benefit of the doubt. Still, Russia plans on selling anti-aircraft missiles to Assad despite concerns about their use by terrorists to attack civilian as well as military planes.
Perhaps this is one reason that George Bush has actively sought to focus on the Syrians, which he had begun to do even before Assad or his intelligence services made the terrible decision to assassinate Rafik Hariri and touch off a nationalist Lebanese freedom movement. His European tour did not do much to convince Putin to stop selling arms to Syria (or nuclear technology to Iran, for that matter). Bush may have instead decided to focus on the customer end of that transaction, trusting that the Iraqi elections would wake Syrians from their torpor and start a demand for democratization. Little did he know that Assad would do Bush’s work for him, and in a stunningly effective manner.
Surprisingly then, Russia has joined the international chorus pushing for Syrian withdrawal, even though it threatens to destabilize the Assad regime. Putin may have feared diplomatic isolation on this point, as France has partnered with the US for the first time in ages on a point of international politics, and Germany’s Gerhardt Schroeder has also publicly demanded a Syrian withdrawal. With Europe and the US tightly united on Syria, Putin may have decided that backing Assad has become a losing bet.