Russia will negotiate Syria’s destiny with a new U.S. president rather than with U.S. President Barack Obama.
Syrian President Bashar Assad, second right, speaks with Syrian troops during his visit to the front line in the Damascus suburb of Marj al-Sultan, Syria. Photo: SANA via AP
The recent appeal of top-ranking American diplomats for the use of military force against the Syrian government is a sign of powerlessness rather than a symbol of strength. It means that the U.S. has no other levers of influence over Syrian President Bashar Assad left. That, anyway, is how the appeal is likely being viewed in Damascus.
In Moscow, the leaked document has been regarded as an appeal for a repetition in Syria of the scenarios of Iraq and Libya, in which the Americans toppled an existing regime.
“Elimination of one or another regime can hardly facilitate a successful continuation of the struggle against terrorism. Rather, it can sink the region into a complete chaos,” said the presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov.
To do justice to the American diplomats though, their appeal did not imply overthrowing Assad (although that is how it was viewed in Moscow), but rather, enforcing peace the way it was done in Yugoslavia in 1998.
Yet, the situation in Syria is radically different from that in Yugoslavia. The suggestion to bomb Assad’s troops is at least one year too late. In theory, such a mode of operation was possible before the Russian military contingent arrived in Syria. Today, should bomb strikes be made, the risk is too high of a collision between the two powers.
Suffice it to recall that in the fall of last year, Russia ostentatiously sent to Syria some air defense units armed with the most modern anti-aircraft system, the S-400. That means that, in order to bomb the Syrian government troops (staffed with Russian military advisors and officers) one would have to bypass the Russian air defense system first.
Even if it were possible to strike the government forces without starting an armed confrontation with Moscow, it would mean a complete termination of the Russian-American collaboration on Syria. Currently, that collaboration is quite intensive but kept low-key by mutual consent of both parties. On the eve of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration is not willing to admit any positive interaction with the long-demonized Kremlin.
Most likely, the appeal of the hawkish American diplomats will be ignored by the White House, and the matter of putting pressure on Assad will be solved with the help of Moscow, which has some leverage over the regime left. Since last year, the regime and its armed forces have virtually been on life support with a switch being in the hands of the Kremlin. The Syrian military have to be supplied not only with weapons and ammunition but also with shoes and field rations.
Without the Russian support, the Syrian army cannot fight for much longer. That is the only lever of influence that can be used on Assad. The problem is that the Syrian president seems to have lost the ability to estimate correctly his strength and resources and is full of determination to keep his power.
Damascus shows signs of confidence that the Russians will not leave no matter what, which means that it can dictate its own conditions. That is the only way that the non-constructive behavior of the governmental delegation at the latest Geneva talks can be explained.
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That is a fallacy, which is most dangerous to Assad. Really, the operation in Syria underpins to a large extent Russia’s prestige in the world, and from Moscow’s standpoint, the current regime is the only effective ally, but it does not mean that Moscow is incapable of giving up everything and leaving the region if it realizes the futility of further efforts.
In fact, Syria is but one card in the large geopolitical game of the Kremlin, whose aim is not at all that of saving the regime or defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS); rather, the aim is to show the world, and above all, the U.S., that Russia is a force to be reckoned with.
However, to leave Syria elegantly, Russia needs a settlement of the conflict. However, a settlement is not possible unless Assad steps down.
Assad has been offered a dignified resignation, with guarantees of safety. Yet, such proposals do not find a positive response in Damascus. Moscow’s irritation at the rigidity of Assad’s government displayed this spring could be felt even in the diplomats’ restrained comments. On their part, Russian experts spoke openly that Syria absolutely cannot be regarded as a potential ally of Russia.
As far as the Syrian crisis is concerned, Russia and the U.S. are in the same boat. Both countries find themselves drawn into it, each for its own reasons. The important point is that both want the crisis to be settled as soon as possible.
With the presidential election coming soon, Obama has less leeway. The Democrats need to demonstrate firmness, meaning that any compromise with Assad (which would appear to be the easiest solution) is out of the question. Obama will not take anything less than a complete victory of democracy.
For Russia, a continuation of the military operation in Syria does not bode well either, meaning only new expenses and potential losses. Conceivably, the Kremlin would not mind shifting the responsibility for further developments onto someone else. That is why the increasing engagement of the U.S. and the appearance of the American special ops among the Kurdish formations are assessed positively in Moscow.
Today, both Russia and the U.S. find themselves in a paradoxical situation. The harder they fight ISIS, the more confident is the regime, and accordingly, the less are the chances for a compromise between the regime and the opposition.
If the problem could be solved through bombings, this would have been done long ago. Therefore, it is reasonable to suggest that Russia will take a wait-and-see attitude until the U.S. election in order to negotiate a solution to the Syrian problem with the new American leader afterwards. One should expect that Russian aid to Assad will then be gradually curtailed, which should reduce his self-confidence and set his generals thinking.
Thus, Assad has time remaining until approximately the spring of 2017 - until after the next U.S. president takes the oath of office in Washington. After that time, look for Assad’s arms to be slowly, but mercilessly, twisted.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.