TSG IntelBrief: Russia Races Ahead in Syria
October 13, 2015

Russia Races Ahead in Syria

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• As other parties run aground in Syria, Russia may be able to achieve its objectives while avoiding long-term engagement in the war

• Putin has already positioned himself to take maximum advantage of the growing consensus that Assad could remain in power during a transition period

• President Putin’s separate meetings on Sunday with high-ranking officials from Saudi Arabia and the UAE may have nudged things forwards in Syria and possibly also in Yemen, where both Arab countries are deeply involved but appear to lack a viable exit plan.

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It seems that the Gulf states, along with the rest of the international community, will now accept the idea that Assad should stay in power in Syria during a transition period so long as it leads to a new government and his eventual departure. Some of Assad’s Gulf enemies will likely no longer insist that he leave before the transition period begins. This change of approach signals an acceptance that, with Russia behind him, Assad is out of danger. He will stay in power in Damascus and in control of the central and western parts of the country, for so long as Russian aircraft and missiles hold the rebels at bay.

Russia wants to remain in Syria, but, unsurprisingly, does not want to fight a long war. Its objectives remain to establish Syria as a quasi-client state and use it as a base from which to build out its influence in the Middle East. The longer the war goes on, the less Russia is likely to achieve these aims. Among several other foreseeable and unforeseeable risks, a long war would increase the risk of Russia being seen as an adversary by the Gulf states; it would risk its military forces being seen as ineffectual; it would carry the political risk of being drawn deeper into the fight with unpredictable consequences; and it would risk a loss of popular support for President Putin at home. In order to achieve what it seeks as quickly as possible, Russia must do more than destroy as many rebel positions as it can through intensive airstrikes.

For so long as the rebels have supplies, they will continue to fight, and so Russia must persuade the countries that are providing funds and weapons to the rebels to stop doing so. Putin probably calculates that if the rebels run short of money and arms, they will either melt away or agree to a ceasefire, and then to peace talks that leave Assad in power—at least for the medium term. Putin can also offer the scenario of a ceasefire followed by peace talks with the Gulf states. He must calculate that Saudi Arabia in particular is not as much concerned about who runs Syria or how, as it is about the degree of Iranian influence that remains in the country once the fighting ends. He can perhaps reassure the Saudis on this point by arguing that the more Russian influence there is, the less Iranian influence there will be, so it is in Saudi Arabia’s interest to back the Russian plan and accept its presence, which will offer more stability and predictability than a collapsed Syrian state, full of violent extremists, egged on by Iran, whose next target could well be Saudi Arabia itself.

As for the so-called Islamic State, which until now has been an accidental beneficiary of Russian engagement, Russia can convincingly argue that it cannot be eradicated by airstrikes alone, and yet there is no ground force capable of taking it on. It is only when the fighting in the rest of Syria has ended that the government, whoever may lead it, will be able—assisted by the coalition—to move against Islamic State strongholds in Raqqa, Palmyra and Deir ez Zour.

Saudi Arabia may suspect that all this looks too good to be true. However, with the war in Yemen showing little sign of ending, Prince Mohammed bin Salman—Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Price and Minister of Defense—in particular needs a break. Following his meeting with Putin on Sunday, he may be prepared to risk accepting Russian assurances in the interest of maintaining enough support at home. He is seen as the man behind Saudi’s aggressive foreign policy and it is not only in Syria that things are going badly. It is even worse in Yemen, where civilian casualties are mounting; the international community is becoming more and more concerned; the costs of war are rising; the reputation of Saudi Arabia is increasingly in question (not helped by the deadly stampede during the Hajj); oil prices remain low; and the benefits of fighting are becoming less and less obvious. Furthermore, on the principle that the ‘victor’ will need to help Yemen recover from the devastating damage to its infrastructure, it is almost a war that is better to ‘lose’ than to ‘win.’ Russia could help Saudi Arabia find a way out.

Turkey’s policy towards Syria is also a factor to be taken into account by Russia, but with the bombings in Ankara last weekend delivering a severe blow to Turkish self-confidence; an election approaching that is unlikely to restore Erdogan’s party to its former unchallenged position; and the government preoccupation’s with Kurdish aspirations for statehood that increasingly makes the future of Assad a secondary consideration, Russia may calculate that the Turks will not push against a tide of international opinion that is going against them. The three Western permanent members of the UN Security Council—the United States, France and the United Kingdom—also seem less inclined to insist on Assad’s immediate removal, especially if by doing so they appear to stand in the way of a path to peace.

As for the future of Syria, if Russia can bring the fighting under control, it is likely that it can also persuade the rest of the international community to postpone a change of government until after the defeat of the Islamic State. That could take a long time.

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