Western officials and Russia experts have suggested additional reasons. They contend Russia fears losing a base of influence in the Middle East, a Mediterranean naval harbor and a reliable customer for its defense industry. Moscow also worries about Islamic extremists within the Syrian opposition and may be playing a Cold War-style game of one-upmanship and enjoying the international spotlight, they said.
But for the broad coalition of countries that want to see Assad gone and an end to a conflict that has left thousands of civilians dead, there is no satisfying explanation for a policy whose eventual downsides seem blindingly obvious.
“If you look at everything they claim to care about — stability, economic ties, a military and defense relationship — all of that presumably will go away if Syria crumbles into either a failed state or a prolonged sectarian conflict,” said Andrew S. Weiss, a Russia expert who served in the Bill Clinton administration.
With another meeting of world powers about the 15-month crisis scheduled for Saturday in Geneva, the Obama administration believes it has detected some weakening in Russia’s steadfast refusal to jettison Assad. Officials said they also see signs of interest in new proposals from U.N. envoy Kofi Annan for a transition government of national unity, which will debated in Geneva.
“They have indicated that, to them, the issue is not some personal commitment to Assad,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities. “There is a lack of understanding about what comes next, but the implicit suggestion is that they are open to a discussion that could include Assad leaving.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stopped in St. Petersburg on Friday to confer with her Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, before they travel to Geneva.
Accounts of their meeting were cryptic and contradictory. Lavrov told reporters that the two agreed on “most things” and said: “I felt Hillary Clinton’s position has changed. She understands our position.”
A senior State Department official in St. Petersburg told Reuters news service, “There are still areas of difficulty and difference.”
According to Russia’s Interfax news agency, there was no progress at a preparatory session in Geneva on Friday attended by representatives from Washington, Moscow and other U.N. Security Council and Arab League members. “Russian delegates stopped other countries’ representatives from reaching a consensus on implementation of Annan’s plans,” the report said.