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Is Russia Changing Its Relationship With Syria?

George Mason University professor Mark Katz is an expert on Russia's role in the Middle East. Russia is the Syrian government's main arms supplier. Professor Katz talks to David Greene about whether Russia's support for Damascus is flagging as the Syrian military continues to battle opposition rebels.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's talk more now about the diplomacy surrounding Syria. Russia has been a staunch ally to Syria and the main arms supplier to the Syrian government. Yesterday, Russian President Vladimir Putin held meetings in Turkey, a country that supports the Syrian rebels. And to try and sort this out for us, we're joined by Mark Katz. He's an expert on Russia's role in the Middle East. He teaches at George Mason University. Professor Katz, welcome back. Good to have you.

MARK KATZ: Thank you. Good to be here.

GREENE: You know, listening to Kelly McEvers' piece there, we're talking about the potential power of Islamists in Syria. And just to understand it, that's a big deal for Russia. And one reason that they have supported the Assad government is they fear Islamist power, in a power vacuum.

KATZ: Yes. This is one of the concerns they've cited over and over, is the fear that as bad as Assad might be, that whatever would follow him would be worse, and that they want America and the West to be alive to this possibility.

GREENE: You and I spoke back in the summer on this program, and the headline that our website used was that Russia refuses to change its position on Syria. And we've come some months now. There are some reports that after a meeting between President Putin and his Turkish counterpart yesterday, there might be a changing Russian position. What's going on? Do you see something changing?

KATZ: I do see the Russians sort of backing off from Assad, that their support for him is not as all-out as it was before. And I think that the meeting in Turkey, what it indicated is that Russian-Turkish relations are good. Trade is high, and they hope it's going to grow higher, and they're not going to let differences over Syria interrupt that.

GREENE: So that's a big part of this, I mean, that Russia sees its relationship, its trade relationship with Turkey at stake here if they really have an open disagreement over Syria.

KATZ: I think so. It's enormous. They said $32 billion at present, and that both presidents said that it might be $100 billion in a year. I think that's a little ambitious, but what it shows - and certainly I think for Putin has demonstrated that, that one of the principle aims of his foreign policy is Russia's commercial relationships.

GREENE: How important a development would it be if this sort of evolving view from Russia continues to evolve and Russia becomes more vocally supportive of Assad leaving?

KATZ: I think that they're not going to actually try to push him out, but I think they'll try to invite him out - in other words, that there seem to be Russian commentators floating the idea that Moscow could provide an exit route for Assad. So I think that they're definitely trying to get past Assad, that they understand that he's not going to be a permanent fixture and that, in fact, his remaining his office is a problem.

GREENE: We've talked a lot about the U.S.-Russian relationship. The Republican candidate in the presidential campaign here called Russia potentially the number-one enemy of the United States. I mean, do you see President Obama and Vladimir Putin being able to work together at some point on this Syria issue?

KATZ: That, I think, was obviously an overstatement that they're our number-one geopolitical enemy. On the other hand, we're not going to be best friends, either. And I think that Putin is a difficult guy to work with, and I think that it's just going to be hard for that to happen. But, you know, we are seeing some change, so I wouldn't rule it out.

GREENE: China is another important country when it comes to the Security Council. If, as we go on in the diplomacy with Syria, could Russia bring China onboard at some point?

KATZ: I think that what the Russians understand about China is that if and when there's a change in Syria, that the Chinese will seamlessly accept it. And that - I was in Moscow this summer, and people were asking: Why is the Russian-Chinese relationship so close on this? And they indicated that they don't consult, and that there's a real possibility that the Chinese might be different from Russia on this, and they don't want to see that happen.

GREENE: Mark Katz is a professor at George Mason University and the author of "Leaving without Losing: The War on Terror After Iraq and Afghanistan." Thanks so much for being here.

KATZ: Thank you.

GREENE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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