As international pressure on President Bashar al-Assad of Syria grows, Russia has maintained a perplexing timidity towards developments. Moscow has steadfastly refused to stake out an unambiguous position on events in Syria, a diplomatic paralysis that may end up proving more costly to Moscow in the long run.
Some analysts say the Kremlin's careful stance is a result of its unwillingness to lose its only real Middle Eastern ally and a desire to avoid a confrontation with the West.
"Syria remains Russia's only ally in the Middle East," Vladimir Karyakin from the state Institute for Strategic Research said. "We abandoned the rest either during perestroika or during the recent Arab revolutions. We even betrayed some - like Libya or Egypt, for example."
Russia has been a major arms supplier to Syria since the Soviet era and political cooperation with Damascus has often been far more valuable to Moscow than money. In 2005, Russia wrote off more than 70 percent of Syria's $13-billion debt, much of which was the result of Soviet-era arms deliveries.
Although financial interests now play a more important role in defining Moscow's approach to Syria than during the Cold War, political concerns still remain the cornerstone, analysts say. Since the early 1970s, the country has hosted Russia's only naval supply and maintenance base outside the former Soviet Union in its Mediterranean port of Tartus.
"If we lose such an ally, we will lose our foothold in the Middle East," Karyakin warned.
Vladimir Isayev from the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute for Oriental Studies said Moscow had already "given up" too many of its interests in the region since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
Yevgeny Satanovsky, who heads Russia's Middle East Institute, disagrees that Syria - or any other country in the region - can be considered Russia's "ally."
"We have never had 'allies' [in the region]," he said. "We have just stuffed Middle Eastern countries with money, weapons and military advisors... But what has Russia, or previously the Soviet Union, ever received in return?"
'Zone of interests'
The unwillingness of Russia and China, both permanent UN Security Council members, to clearly condemn the Syrian regime for its brutal onslaught against demonstrators have prevented the Council from passing a strong resolution on Syria that would further isolate the Assad regime, already under U.S. and EU sanctions.
Instead, the Council only issued a presidential statement - a relatively mild, non-binding document - more than four months into the uprising, calling on Assad to put an end to violence and begin talks with the opposition.
The statement was issued on August 3, after a bloody crackdown by pro-Assad troops that killed up to 300 people in a week, according to numbers tallied by witnesses and human rights activists on the ground. The next day, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said that Assad would "face a sad fate" if he failed to carry out reforms, make peace with the opposition and "create a modern state."
He also warned Assad that failure to do so would force Russia to "take some decisions." He did not elaborate on what those decisions might be.
"There are the policies of the president and his administration, and there are the policies of the government and its premier [Vladimir Putin]," Satanovsky said. By such statements, he said, Medvedev "was probably trying to scare Assad," and "this is his right as the president - to express himself elegantly, menacingly and vaguely."
"God forbid he should say something clear," he added.
Moscow's "ambivalent" stance towards Syria, which can partly be explained by its unwillingness to "stand against the West," is ''difficult for the world to understand,'' Karyakin said.
"The question is whether we can say strongly to the West that Syria is one of our zones of interest," said Isayev, adding that such a clear policy statement was needed in order for Russia to become more involved on a practical level in efforts to resolve the crisis in Syria.
Middle East peace without Syria?
Last week, after U.S. and European leaders explicitly called on Assad to step down, the Russian Foreign Ministry made another effort to ease the pressure on Assad, saying it did not support such calls and insisted that the Syrian president "should be given time" to implement reforms.
On Tuesday, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution calling for an investigation into the crackdown on the opposition in Syria, where more than 2,200 people have been killed since the beginning of the unrest in mid-March, according to UN human rights chief Navi Pillay.
Russia, as well as China, Cuba and Ecuador, voted against the resolution. The Russian Foreign Ministry said the document was "politicized and one-sided" and failed to take into consideration Syrian efforts to "stabilize the situation."
But with every new victim, it becomes harder for Russian diplomacy to oppose the growing condemnation of Assad.
"If we state that the [Assad] regime is illegitimate, this would mean that we are breaking all ties and that this regime will not deal with us at all," Isayev said.
"We are not placing any bets on anyone," he said, when asked whether the Russian authorities believe that the Assad regime would survive. "We have relations with various countries, including Syria, and we are not interested in the worsening of those relations."
"In some respects, we betted on Libya - and lost economically," he added. "Now, who will return the $4.5 billion to Russian Railroads? Who will return contracts worth more than $4 billion to the Russian Defense Ministry?"
But "apart from the large amount of money that we would lose there... Syria is a country without which it is impossible to resolve Middle East tensions," he said.
Syria is a uniquely influential actor in the Middle East as a whole and, Isayev said, Russia is anxious to keep Damascus closely involved in international efforts to ease tensions in the region.
Experts say Syria, which supports Islamist group Hezbollah and harbors Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, has played an important role in the Arab-Israeli peace process, which Russia mediates as part of the Middle East Quartet that also includes the United States, the United Nations, and the European Union. Syria is also home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees.
"We don't know who would come to power in Syria" if the Assad regime falls, Isayev said. "And if any one of the regional pillars collapses, this region will plunge into chaos."
Satanovsky said that even if the situation in Syria ends up being "the same as in Libya," "it's not a big deal - we should get used to standing on our own two feet."
Russia should "certainly" maintain contacts with the Syrian opposition, he added, but the problem was that "the opposition is disintegrated - it's unclear who to make contact with."
But while it may be unwilling to "stand against the West," the Kremlin has so far been able to pursue its own political interests in Syria.
"Russia's policies have stuck to the Chinese paradigm: while the tigers are fighting in the valley, we will be sitting on a hill and observing," Karyakin said. "But it's difficult to say how long our leadership will resist."
"Sometimes it's better to stand aside," Satanovsky added. "When everything around is collapsing, it's better to try to find a way to escape with minimum losses."
Eventually, it is Iran - not Russia - that will define the fate of the Syrian regime, Karyakin suggested.
"Iran's influence in Syria is very strong,'' he said, adding that the future of Syria will depend on how strongly Iran "backs Assad's interests."
Syria, a long-standing Iranian ally, serves as the main hub through which Tehran sends weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas. Earlier this week, Western media reported that Iran has cut back or even stopped its funding of Hamas after the organization, which rules the Gaza Strip, failed to show public support for Assad.
Karyakin said the West would eventually "find a way" to overthrow the Syrian president "without asking Russia."
"I believe that our delegation in the Security Council will not support sanctions [against Syria]. But since we have not stood our ground over Libya, will they take any notice of us?"
MOSCOW, August 24 (RIA Novosti, Maria Kuchma)