The crisis in Syria is testing a new phase of international relations, as part of the so-called struggle for Syria, in parallel to the struggle within Syria.
Unfortunately for the Syrians, this regional-international struggle for their country will prolong their sufferings, and threaten their institutions. This is something of no concern to Syria's rulers, as they hold on to power at whatever cost, even if the international formula that has kept them in power for decades changes, due to the support of the west.
Most likely, Moscow will maintain its defense of Syria until the end, contrary to the hopes and predictions of the Europeans, the Turks and the Arabs, that Russia would adjust its stance on the Syrian crisis. Indeed, development in the events on the ground indicate that the wager on a change in Moscow's position has been mistaken, and will remain so.
The Russian leadership leaves no room for doubt, irrespective of the growth in the bloody confrontations underway in Syrian cities and rural areas, that if it is forced to choose between siding with the regime or against it, it will do the former. This leadership is exercising this hard-line stance of support for the regime, as part of a general hard-line policy of confrontation between it and the countries of the west in the international arena, particularly in Europe and the Middle East.
It is a new factor that renders invalid the notion that Russia is pursuing a policy of bargaining, most likely in the calculations of the countries with which the Russian bear has pending issues.
Even the countries that are in agreement with Moscow on a number of crises should observe the impact of the new hard-line Russian policy on their own policies and positions. Russian leaders are trying to reclaim the initiative on the international stage. Even if they have their concerns about the behavior of the Syrian regime, it is an anxiety about its ability to hold out against the popular protests, which are growing day by day. Thus, Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, asked that the regime accelerate its reforms, to provide decent political cover for Damascus to continue with its security crackdown. However, Russian officials deny some of the aspects of the military and security assistance that they provide to Syria's rulers, to confront deserters from the army. Even the discussion of continuing to supply Syria with surface-to-air missiles is a part of enabling Syria in any confrontation with NATO forces, if the latter entertains the idea of a "scenario" against the regime. "We believe what the regime says about the explosions that took place in Damascus and Aleppo, that they were the work of terrorists, and we do not believe what the opposition says, that the regime was behind them," say the Russians.
Whether this represents exaggeration or realism on their part, Russian officials have encountered information on the role of terror in the Syrian crisis (and believe the information provided by the regime); they have observed elements that speak to their constant anxiety with their confrontation with terror, which they suffered from at the hands of the Chechens in the Caucasus in general. The Russians monitor the movements of al-Qaeda and give weight to the recent declaration by Ayman Zawahiri, calling for standing against the Syrian regime.
They also pay attention to the news about al-Qaeda in Lebanon, despite the constant denial of this information, and observe what they consider to be the activities of Salafist groups that are close to the thought or practice of this organization.
The reason for all this, although it might seem to be exaggerated, is that Moscow has not hidden its anger (in meetings with officials in Washington) about the openness by the United States to the Muslim Brotherhood, which triumphed in elections in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Libya, and disregard the excuse that they are better than the Salafists, who remain a minority. The move toward an alliance between Washington and the Brotherhood is making the Russians more anxious, while it is an extension of American cooperation with these groups in Central Asia, on the borders of Russia, and in the heart of republics that previously belonged to the Soviet Union, because Moscow believes that this strengthens the blockade around it, along the Asian and European borders, if we add the cooperation of the Islamists of Turkey with the US in deploying a missile shield against Russia.
The matter involves more than the Russian conviction that adopting an anti-western policy is popular, with the Russian presidential elections taking place next month. In fact, the Kremlin believes that the Arabs' response to the Russian veto in the Security Council against the Arab League solution, is limited to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and whether this is right or wrong, Moscow believes that this negative point cannot be made general vis-à-vis its Arab policy.
The Russian stance leads to growing nationalist sentiment, that the concessions made during the 1990s were given away for free, and that Russia will not give anything else away; i.e., it will not retreat, for example, when it comes to supporting the Syrian regime in exchange for the missile shield. This leads to the conclusion that Moscow does not care if a civil war breaks out in Syria, if it is unable to reach an understanding on the Levant with the west.