Yesterday I argued that if it became clear that the Russian plane was brought down over Egypt by a bomb, Vladamir Putin may be forced to reassess his Syrian campaign – especially in light of a strong counterattack by Islamic State on the ground in Syria. Today, as the bomb theory became the only plausible explanation for the catastrophe, the Kremlin is strongly hinting that such a radical reassessment is already underway.
Maria Zakharova, a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, has today said on a Russian radio station it is no longer 'crucial' that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stay in power. 'Absolutely not, we've never said that,' she insisted when pressed, adding that Moscow only opposed 'regime change'. This is the first time that Russia has publicly acknowledged that Assad may have to go; and we can be quite certain that the spokeswoman was not speaking without prior approval from her superiors. Barring a strong clarification in the coming days, we can assume that this represents a dramatic shift in policy – announced by a minion as a way of saving face.
If this does indeed represent a new stance, it is not difficult to see why it has come about: a realisation on Moscow's part that airstrikes will not necessarily weaken entrenched Islamic State and other jihadist fighters sufficiently for the Syrian Arab Army and Iranian/Hezbollah-backed militias to retake the roughly two thirds of Syria they control. It also suggests an acknowledgement of the increased threat of terrorist strikes targeting Russian citizens at home and abroad. Given the massive cost of a prolonged campaign and Russia's struggling economy, a political solution is becoming more urgent than ever.
To complicate matters, yesterday Iran threated to pull out of negotiations over Syria's future, saying that they could not tolerate Saudi Arabia's intransigent stance that Assad must go. Saudi Arabia and its allies – Qatar, the US and Turkey – are meanwhile boosting support for the 'moderate' rebels, sensing they may now have Putin cornered. The truth is that it is nothing short of a miracle that Assad has lasted this long. He is the only Arab leader since Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser to have survived an attempt by the US and its reactionary Gulf Arab allies to bring about regime change. The tragedy is that, if he does go, his fall will mark the end of secular government in the Middle East.