Russia and the United States are engaged in seemingly urgent negotiations over Syria. The Syrian chemical weapons threat that the United States has been publicly emphasizing may provide an opportunity for Russia to regain leverage in Syria after the fall of Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held an impromptu 40-minute meeting Dec. 6 hosted by U.N.-Arab League Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi on the sidelines of a European security meeting in Dublin. Earlier in the day, Clinton and Lavrov spoke privately for about 25 minutes. The focus of the meetings was reportedly recent chemical weapons activity in Syria. Few details on the outcome of the meetings have surfaced, but both sides have given the impression that talks are moving forward to try to ensure a stable transition to a post-al Assad Syria.
Russia wants to maintain a stake in post-al Assad Syria. This is difficult because Russia has already entrenched itself with the Alawite elite, which is now battling for survival against an emboldened Sunni majority. However, the Syrian armed forces are a product of Soviet Cold War policy and Russia has deep links with the military, security and intelligence apparatuses in Syria. Maintaining the institutional strength of the armed forces while eliminating the al Assad clan is a major imperative for the United States and allies pushing for al Assad's ouster. Russia could provide some assistance in this regard.
Russia could offer to secure the chemical weapons sites by sending its own teams into the country, though it would likely only do so as part of a broader agreement with the United States and the al Assad government. Russia has a large intelligence footprint in Syria and played a role in building Syria's weapons programs. As rebels have closed in on Damascus, the regime has intensified efforts to seek political asylum for al Assad and his associates. Russia could negotiate amnesty for al Assad in exchange for securing access to the chemical weapons sites to neutralize the threat.
Russia's price for such assistance would be a significant stake in the formation of a post-al Assad government to protect Moscow's interests in the Levant. Iranian interests would also likely intersect with those of Russia. This may be unpalatable to the United States and its allies, but the United States is also highly intent on avoiding yet another major military engagement in the Middle East.
Russia may also be using its interactions with the United States to present counterevidence to recently leaked U.S. intelligence claims about Syria's chemical weapons activity. Moscow's intent would be to undermine what appears to be a psychological campaign by the United States aimed at further fracturing the al Assad government through fear of a foreign military intervention. Russia is looking to avoid an accelerated downfall of the Syrian regime to give itself time to force its way into the negotiation over an eventual Syrian transition. The actions that follow Clinton's meetings with Lavrov could reveal whether Moscow is making progress in this aim.