So Medvedev has finally asked Bashar to lead reforms or step aside. Only days ago the Russians slapped the West in the face when the vetoed a resolution that would have condemned the Syrian regime for its brutal repression of protests, so why is there this sudden contradiction in tone?
If somebody disrespects you, and you expect that respect for your strength or political position, then you will try to respond to them in a similar way at the earliest opportunity. The Russians felt insulted and slightly cheated with the way NATO escalated its campaign against Gaddafi's forces, and they have always made clear that NATO exceeded its mandate. Clearly they did not expect, nor desire, the result we've seen in Libya. But that didn't mean that they were prepared to defend Gaddafi to the hilt. There are no permanent alliances or interests in this world, and Gaddafi was useful up to a certain extent. The same applies with Syria, and whilst the Russians licked their lips in delight as the UN Security Council resolution was vetoed, that doesn't mean that they will back Assad unconditionally.
Some people have made the mistaken assumption that Russia wishes to protect its naval base in Tartous, or its arms trade with the Syrian regime. But that is a silly assumption to make. Whilst these factors contribute to Russia's interest in supporting Assad, they are not essential. If, and when, Assad's position looks shaky, they will have no problems withdrawing their support. I had said this previously and will continue to say so. Russia is motivated by a desire to keep NATO and Western influence limited in the Middle East, whilst also being keen to prevent a conflagration that could cause far more damage to their interests than good. Only recently, Assad warned of a conflagration in Tel Aviv if NATO tries anything against Syria, and of course that is very unlikely, but this is not a reaction that Moscow would be interested in backing. Assad is supposed to be a reasonable, sobre leader whose main selling point is his ability to guarantee stability in the region and act as the go-between for Iran and the West. He's certainly an embarrassment when his security services have killed over three thousand Syrian citizens under some flimsy story of a foreign conspiracy. Medvedev said:
“But this decision should be taken not in NATO or certain European countries. It should be taken by the Syrian people and the Syrian leadership.”So in theory, Moscow is in agreement with the West that perhaps Assad should go, but they differ on the means for this to occur. In line with their goal of maintaining their balance viz. the West in the Middle East, they seem to be telling America that they don't have a problem with Assad going, as long as it is his people who get rid of him, and not NATO war planes. This might be a convergence of Moscow and Washington's interests and, if so, Washington has probably gotten over the cold shower it got at the Security Council a few days ago. Russia is now saying what the United States said months ago, which could mean that in a few more months, perhaps by the end of the year, Moscow could be telling Assad outright that it is best he step down. If, that is, he doesn't succeed in crushing the revolt first.