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Putin’s Master Plan for Syria

Putin’s Master Plan for Syria

After first surprising the world by entering the fray in Syria last year, Vladimir Putin again shocked observers by announcing he was partially pulling out. On March 14, the Russian president declared his objectives “generally accomplished” and announced the withdrawal of part of his Russian military forces in Syria.

While it is too early to know the scope of the Russian withdrawal, it is safe to assume that it does not amount to an exit from Syria à la the 2011 U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Putin will keep enough military assets in Syria to redeploy his forces there when he chooses to do so — he said on Thursday that Russia could scale up its presence again “within a few hours,” and on Friday his Defense Ministry announced that it was carrying out roughly two dozen daily air sorties to support the Syrian regime’s advance on the eastern city of Palmyra. Russia will also maintain a naval base in Tartus and the Hmeymim air base, along with hundreds of troops to protect them. Plus, Putin will keep the Russian S-400 air-defense systems to deter Turkey from shooting down another Russian airplane.

Any talk of this “partial” withdrawal shifting the tide of the Syrian war in favor of the opposition is wishful thinking. Moscow went into Syria to prevent the military defeat of Bashar al-Assad’s regime and to shore him up in the long term. These two objectives are the primary drivers of Russia’s Syria policy. Moscow believes these objectives have been achieved — but if it believes the regime’s survival is threatened again, it will not hesitate to redeploy its forces.

But for now, Putin clearly believes that Assad’s position is secure. Given the military equation on the ground and the geopolitical realities — notably the reluctance of the United States to engage in military action in Syria — Moscow is confident that another threat to regime survival will not materialize anytime soon.

Putin’s withdrawal announcement put the well-honed and time-proven spin machine of the Syrian regime to the test, as Damascus scrambled to make the case it wasn’t being abandoned by Russia. But Moscow is clearly exasperated with Assad’s inflexibility, as it believes the Syrian regime should parlay its recent military gains into a negotiating advantage at the ongoing peace talks in Geneva. The Syrian government, meanwhile, has shown little appetite for negotiating about the country’s political future at all.

The troubled relationship between Moscow and Assad is not a recent development. On Nov. 27, 2012, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Moscow has “good working relations” with Assad — but not the “privileged relation” that existed with his father, Hafez al-Assad. Over the past five years, Assad ignored numerous requests and recommendations made by Putin to adopt confidence-building measures toward the opposition, including the release of political prisoners.

During the first four years of the Syrian conflict, Moscow did not invite Assad to the Kremlin — despite numerous requests from Damascus. Assad wanted the symbolism of a handshake with the Russian president at a time when he was persona non grata in international and regional capitals except in Tehran. It was only in October of last year that the Kremlin finally granted Assad’s long-held wish of a photo op with Putin. For the Russian president, this was an opportunity to reaffirm to his domestic audience that his military intervention came at the request of the Syrian regime and to press his case to Assad in a face-to-face meeting that the only solution in Syria is a diplomatic settlement with the participation of all political forces and groups, including armed opposition groups.

Over the last two months, Moscow’s growing disenchantment with the regime has been on public display. In a Feb. 18 rebuke to Assad’s professed objective of wanting to regain control over all the Syrian territory, Russian U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin said Assad’s remarks “do not chime with the diplomatic efforts that Russia is undertaking.”

The gap between Moscow and Damascus only widened after Churkin’s remarks. After Assad issued a Feb. 22 presidential decree that scheduled parliamentary elections for April, Moscow reminded him that presidential and parliamentary elections were to be held after the opposition and the government had drawn up a new constitution. The Syrian foreign minister’s recent talk of a red line ahead of the Geneva negotiations was also not well received in Moscow.

But none of their squabbling should suggest that Putin is preparing to dump Assad. While Moscow does not want to be held hostage by the Syrian regime, it has no option but to continue dealing with Assad’s leadership. Despite his troubled relationship with Damascus, Putin did not hesitate to send in his air force when its military fortunes were failing.

So far, Russian diplomacy on Syria has re-established it as a key regional player. Moscow’s co-sponsorship of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), a coalition of 20 countries and organizations designed to facilitate a diplomatic solution, cements Russia’s status as an international power to be reckoned with and ensures that future political arrangements in Syria secure its interests. Moscow and Washington’s collaboration within the framework of the ISSG cease-fire task force produced a cessation of hostilities agreement, which, though not perfect, has led to a significant reduction in violence in Syria. It also facilitated humanitarian access to some besieged areas, even though recent reports indicate that the Syrian government has again stalled on granting permission for aid deliveries to besieged areas.

Mutual concessions made by Russia and the United States paved the way for this collaboration. At the request of Russia and China, no references were made to Assad in U.N. Security Council resolution 2254, which offered a roadmap for a cease-fire and a peace process to end the conflict in Syria. Russia, meanwhile, dropped its insistence on excluding Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam from the cessation of hostilities and decided to live with the creative ambiguity that excluded the so-called Islamic State, al-Nusra Front, “or other terrorist organizations designated by the U.N. Security Council.”

This collaboration between the United States and Russia is also based on an understanding that unilateral, but coordinated, actions against the Islamic State are more realistic than joint actions. Despite its claims that it is fighting “terrorists” in Syria, Moscow has used the bulk of its firepower to target non-Islamic-State-affiliated rebel groups, with the aim of consolidating the Syrian regime areas that are crucial to its survival. Moscow believes that the Islamic State is more of a threat to U.S. and Western interests than to Russia, notwithstanding the presence of Chechen and other Russian fighters in Syria.

Going forward, Putin’s ability to play peacemaker in Syria will be tested in two ways during negotiations. First, he must reach an accommodation with the United States. Then, he must convince his allies in Damascus and Tehran to abandon their maximalist positions about the outcome of a political solution to the conflict.

Russia and the United States are still divided over key issues, including the composition and mandate of the transitional authority, Assad’s role in the transition, which rebel groups should be defined as terrorists, and the role of transitional justice in a peace agreement.

Moscow and Washington do seem to have made progress in resolving their disagreements about decentralization in post-Assad Syria. Having abandoned its early concerns that decentralization could result in the dissolution of the country, Russia is now open to the idea that a federal model could apply to a future Syria, if the Syrians agreed to it. On Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that while Moscow wants Syria to remain united, “it is the Syrians themselves who must choose power structure of their country.”

The fate of Assad will be Putin’s key test with Iran. Both Tehran and Moscow will not spare any effort to keep Assad in power in the absence of a political agreement. Where they still differ is whether a power-sharing arrangement that guarantees their respective interests in Syria is possible without Assad playing a role in it — though not necessarily leading it. A power-sharing arrangement that includes regime elements but not Assad might be acceptable to Moscow, but not to Tehran. To date, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is in charge of Iran’s Syria policy, still sees Assad as a guarantor that Syria will not become a base for carrying out a regional anti-Iranian and anti-Hezbollah agenda.

Russia has an old network of formal and informal relations throughout Syrian regime structures and Syrian society. On the other hand, Iran’s principal interlocutor in Syria has always been Assad. Since his assumption of power in 2000, Assad invested more time and effort in strengthening his relationship with Tehran and Hezbollah than with any other country or party — an investment that, in his opinion, has now been vindicated.

Putin’s decision to withdraw some of his troops from Syria will reinforce Assad’s view that his bet on Tehran and Hezbollah was correct. This will make Putin more dependent on Tehran’s willingness to assist him in reining in Assad in order to reach a political solution. It will also make Tehran, not Moscow, the indispensable signatory to any political agreement in Syria.

SERGEI CHIRIKOV/AFP/Getty Images