MOSCOW – Recent hopes that the Kremlin would end its support of Syrian strongman Bashar Assad melted quickly, and analysts say Moscow ultimately may change its stance only if Assad ends up cornered.
Russia's refusal to join the West in calling for Assad's ouster is rooted both in a sober geopolitical calculus and deep suspicions about Western intentions -- as well, perhaps, as a desire to save face after supporting the Syrian leader for so long.
Moscow sees little profit in dumping its last ally in the Middle East, and President Vladimir Putin has described calls for a regime change in Syria as a dangerous example of Western meddling in a sovereign country's affairs.
Putin last week raised new expectations of a Kremlin change of heart when he vaguely talked about "new ideas" in tackling the crisis during a visit to Turkey. But Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov cooled such hopes Sunday when he said Moscow continues to strongly oppose demands for Assad's resignation.
Georgy Mirsky, a Middle East expert with the Institute for World Economy and International Relations, the top foreign policy think-tank supported by the Russian government, said the Kremlin realizes that Assad's day are numbered, but it doesn't want to look weak by betraying an old ally whom it has supported for so long.
"Putin has no doubts that the regime will fall," he said. "But he doesn't want it to look like he dumped Assad. He would lose face if he moves closer to the West and gives up his support for Assad."
Defying the West on Syria had been part of Putin's anti-U.S. posturing aimed at mobilizing support ahead of last March's presidential election, in which he won a new term despite a wave of protests against him.
Last week's Congressional approval of legislation containing sanctions on Russian officials accused of rights abuses fueled tensions in U.S.-Russian relations and would likely make the Kremlin even less prone to a compromise on Syria.
"It's an irritant that could lead to the toughening of Russia's position on Syria, making it less rational," said Alexander Shumilin, the head of the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Mideast Conflicts.
He said that while the Kremlin no longer feels the need to challenge the West on Syria for internal reasons because anti-Putin protests have abated, a sharp change of course would be awkward.
"Something really radical would have to happen ... like rebels thrusting into the center of Damascus" for Moscow to change its stance, Shumilin said.
Alexei Malashenko of the Carnegie Moscow Center agreed that even though Assad long has been a liability for Russia, an abrupt about-face on Syria would amount to acknowledging failure of its policy.
"Russia's main priority now is saving face," Malashenko said. "It may agree to some sort of compromise, although psychologically it would be very difficult. Assad represents the last remaining bulwark of Moscow's influence in the Middle East, and dumping him would show the fiasco of Russia's policy."
Mirsky, the veteran Mideast expert, noted that state-controlled television channels had begun to change the tone of their coverage of the Syrian crisis, as if preparing the audience for Assad's collapse. He predicted that the Kremlin prefers to support Assad until the end and then cast his downfall as the result of an uneven battle against the combined efforts of the West, Arab states and Turkey.
"Putin will keep backing Assad. He would rather lose Syria than look like a man who dumped an ally in order to show solidarity with the West," he said.
Mirsky argued that the Kremlin has no fear that staunch support for Assad would damage its positions in the Arab world simply because Moscow's influence there already is minimal.
"The attitude to Russia in the Arab world is simply horrible, and it's too late to change that," Mirsky said, adding that the Kremlin apparently also has given up hope for maintaining any leverage in Syria, which has been an important customer for Russian weapons and hosts Russia's only naval base outside the former Soviet Union.
"Nothing good lies in store for Moscow," Mirsky said, adding that Russia might have tried to retain some influence in Syria by trying to replace Assad with a compromise figure earlier in the crisis.
"Russia has missed that chance, not for a victory, but for some kind of a compromise solution that could have been acceptable for it," he said. "Now, after so much blood has been spilled, Russia can't gain anything. All opposition members hate Moscow, so it will get nothing no matter who comes to power."
Mirsky said that Russia could help negotiate a safe exit for Assad, but would likely be reluctant to offer him asylum, because such a move would deal yet another blow to its ties with Arab countries.
Shumilin suggested that if Moscow were to arrange for the Syrian ruler's getaway, it would likely offer him passage to some friendly state, like Belarus. "Moscow may play that card to try to boost its influence," he said.
Analysts said, however, that Syria's ruling Alawite minority would not allow Assad to leave the country even if he wanted to.
"If they feel that Assad is trying to betray their interests with any hypothetical attempts at compromise, they simply wouldn't allow him to do that," said Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs magazine. "They have nowhere to go, and they will fight for their lives."