The ongoing conflict in Syria has now reached a death toll estimated at over 70,000 people, according to the United Nations, and hundreds of thousands of refugees. The opposition forces, known as the Free Syrian Army, began fighting against the Assad regime after protests in March 2011 were violently suppressed by Syrian military forces. The protests initially demanded Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down from power after his family's decades-long rule of the country following a military coup orchestrated by his father. The violence escalated in April 2011 when Syrian military personell opened fire on protestors.
Blatant human rights violations on the part of the Assad regime have been observed by UN officials and even the regimes closest allies, Russia and Iran, have recently distanced themselves from the regime. Russian-Syrian relations date back to height of the Cold War when Damascus served as an ally to Moscow in opposition to western powers. Syria got some help from the Soviet Union during the 1956 Arab-Israeli War and between the years of 1955-1958 had received about $294 billion in military and economic aid. Many Syrian military officers and high ranking party officials were educated in Russia and the relationship between the to countries remains somewhat strong to this day. In the early stages of the conflict, Russian officials expressed that they did not agree with US-led calls for Assad to step down.
However, recently Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev has distanced himself from the Assad regime, seemingly because of the international response to the conflict and human rights violations. Despite the historic ties between the two countries, Prime Minister Medvedev has recently stated that Russia "does not support anyone in this conflict, neither President Assad... nor the rebels". In addition, Russian President Vladamir Putin further expressed a lack of support for the regime saying that Russia would not support the Assad Regim "at any cost". It seems that Russian officials recognize that Assad's government is on the verge of collapse through the use of such strong rhetoric and public denunciations of the regime. Officials in Moscow have been skeptical of the legitimacy of the Arab Spring revolutions claiming that it contributed to regional instability and the rise of Islam, but they have expressed an interest in preventing Syria from plunging into a "never-ending civil war". In December 2012, the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said for the first time that Syrian rebels might actually succeed in ousting Assad, but Moscow backtracked the next day.
It would seem that Russia and Syria may be parting ways, despite a longtime friendship between Moscow and the Assad family. While the rhetoric coming out of Moscow may support this idea, they continue to block any UN sanctions against the Syrian government. This represents some hesitancy among Russian officials to terminate the relationship, as Syria had been one of the Soviet Union's only allies in the Middle East.
The deterioration of Russian-Syrian relations may represent an opportunity for the international community to actually pass some of the proposed sanctions on the Assad regime. However, if Assad is removed from power, the fate of the Syrian rebel groups and the country itself would still be uncertain. With divisions in the rebel movement along class, ethnic and religious lines, it is unlikely that the conflict will end when the regime falls. Such divisions will likely produce more conflict as the Syrian people attempt to form a new government when Assad falls. Policymakers should be hesitant to get involved in the Syrian conflict because of the divisions in the opposition movement and should wait and see what kind of government is formed when the rebels succeed. Without Russian support for the regime, rebel success is far more likely. Even the Assad regime's longtime ally believes his days are numbered and the international community should press for his resignation, but refrain from getting too involved in the civil war until it is clear what kind of government the opposition forms when they finally do succeed.