BEIRUT -- Syrian President Bashar Assad is taking advantage of the rift between Russia and the United States over Ukraine to press ahead with plans to crush the rebellion against his rule and secure his re-election for another seven-year term, unencumbered by pressure to compromise with his opponents.
The collapse last month of Geneva peace talks jointly sponsored by Russia and the United States had already eroded the slim prospects that a negotiated Syria war settlement might be possible. With peace process backers at odds over the Ukraine popular uprising's outcome, Assad feels newly confident that his efforts to restore his government's authority in Syria won't be met soon with any significant challenge from the international community, according to analysts and people familiar with the regime's thinking.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's defiant response to the toppling of his ally, Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych, has further reinforced Assad's conviction that he can continue to count on Russia's unwavering support against the armed rebellion challenging his rule, said Damascus-based journalist Salem Zahran, an analyst with close ties to the Syrian regime.
"The regime believes the Russians now have a new and stronger reason to keep Assad in power and support him, especially after the experience of Libya, and now Ukraine," he said. "In addition, the regime believes that any conflict in the world which distracts the attention of the Americans is a factor which eases pressure on Syria."
Even if the Russians had ever been inclined to collaborate with the United States on a Syria solution, "they'll be unlikely to do so now, because they won't want to hand Obama a victory," said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Affairs.
Two other areas of U.S.-Russia cooperation in Syria will now also be put to the test; last summer's accord to destroy Syria's arsenal of chemical arms and the recent United Nations resolution urging Syria to ease humanitarian aid deliveries and halt attacks such as the deadly barrel bombings that have claimed hundreds of lives in the past two months.
There are no indications that Assad is in a hurry to comply with either. Syria has missed deadlines for removing its chemical weapons. The barrel-bombings have continued unabated, and there has been no discernible progress toward relieving crippling sieges of rebel-held towns.
Instead, Assad is stepping up preparations for presidential elections set for June under terms of the current constitution. Though no date has been set, and he has not yet officially announced his candidacy, Syrian government officials have repeatedly stressed that Assad will run and expects to win.