Why Putin is ahead in Syria’s game of chess

It is not in Moscow’s interest to be permanently entangled in a war that Assad and Iran would like to continue

Joyce Karam

Published: Updated:

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin announcement of partial withdrawal from Syria on the eve of the 5th anniversary of the uprising, serves Moscow two advantages. One in dictating the terms of intervention on the Syrian regime and refusing getting stuck in a quagmire by following Assad’s military roadmap; and the second is in emerging as a key interlocutor with regional countries and the opposition in the political process.

For Putin, his intervention in the conflict last September was shaped around the political process to bolster the regime’s position in the talks and slow its bleeding in the Northern of the country. Having achieved that at a heavy humanitarian cost for the Syrians, it is not in Moscow’s interest to be permanently entangled in a war that Assad and Iran would like to continue to Turkey’s and Jordan’s borders by pursuing an long outdrawn mission to regain full control of the country.

Undertaking Assad’s full task would be a costly quagmire for Russia, who has already established ties with the Syrian rebels, and along with the United States, would rather invest in a political roadmap while protecting the current landscape giving advantage to the Assad regime.

Russia to Assad: We are not Iran

In announcing the “withdrawal of the main part of our military force from the Syrian Arab Republic,” Putin’s message appears to be directed at both, his ally the Assad regime, and his old rival Washington, the Syrian opposition and key regional players. Putin’s message to Assad is while Moscow has invested in strengthening the regime’s position in the North, it does not share its vision of a military solution, especially one that is driven by Iranian proxies and would take years and threaten confrontation with Turkey, Jordan and Israel.

Russia is not Iran in Syria, and won’t get bogged down directly or through proxy militias to save the Assad family or routes to Hezbollah. Its strategic military interests, while they are invested in the current security structure, will be better met through engaging in a political process over Syria that gives edge to the regime's interests.

Russia is not Iran in Syria, and won’t get bogged down directly or through proxy militias to save the Assad family or routes to Hezbollah

Joyce Karam

Putin’s hint in his remarks that “The effectiveness of our military created the conditions for the start of the peace process” asserts such direction. For Russia, its alliance with pro-Iranian militias on the ground in Syria helped in the short term to stabilize the regime after a brutal summer, block a safe zone on the Turkish border and make gains in Northern Syria.

In the long term, however, Russia’s goals are bound to clash with Iran. While Tehran is expanding its role in Syrian territory through Hezbollah and Iraqi militias as well a massive trained pro-regime militia, Russia’s roadmap relies heavily on saving what is left of the security and military infrastructure of the Syrian state.

Syria is Russia’s last bastion on the Mediterranean from the Cold War, and the specter of the country breaking up or Moscow losing its intel and military benefits is a red line for Putin. From the naval base in Tartous (its last outside the Soviet Union) and the new airbase in Latakia, Russia is looking to solidify its presence in Syria rather than surrendering it to militias or having it become another Afghanistan. Moscow’s arms contracts with Syrian regime amount to $700 million a year, and its military, political, and cultural influence is deeply rooted in the Syrian society.

Putin as an interlocutor?

By having shown that his military role can change the balance in Syria, Putin has Assad more dependent on him to maintain the upper hand, while Moscow will employ this advantage in the negotiations. Putin’s partial withdrawal signals to Assad that absent of political concessions, a full withdrawal by Russia could mean the regime losing the air advantage, relying heavily on pro-Iranian militias, and possibly rolling back the gains made in the North against moderate rebels.

At a time when Washington has dithered the Syrian rebel insurgency and backed down on its position asking Assad to “step aside” before any transition, Putin’s terms of settlement in Syria are largely in alignment with the Obama administration. The US has abandoned any talk about regime change in Syria and its primary objective is working towards a political solution, fighting ISIS and containing the flow of refugees. Moscow for its part is worried about more than 1,700 fighters from Russia that have joined ISIS.

Putin’s diplomatic moves indicate that he’s eying the role of becoming the key interlocutor for any political settlement in Syria. In that, he is relying on his improved ties with Arab countries, having visited Egypt, hosted the Leaders of Jordan, Bahrain and Qatar in the last two months, and prior to that convened a summit with Saudi deputy crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the UAE Armed Forces.

For Arab states, Russia is not Iran, and that alone can help in finding common ground on a political transition in Syria that these states would like to see it undercut Iran’s influence while accommodating the moderate opposition and fighting ISIS. A senior Arab official points out that Russia did not block the Yemen resolution that gave international cover for a war that the GCC has largely framed against Iran. Moscow has also taken into account Israel’s interests in Syria, not interjecting Israeli operations, one aimed at Hezbollah leader Samir Kuntar last December.

By changing the rules of the game and the political conversation, Putin is once again mastering the chess board in Syria. Russia’s ultimate success is contingent on how much pressure is Moscow willing to apply on a regime whose sole path since 2011 has been to bomb and kill its way into maintaining power.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Bureau Chief for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

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