Now that he has established a firm foothold in Syria following 18 months of direct military intervention, Russia’s strongman, Vladimir Putin, has to politically safeguard his gains in order to ensure their long-term consolidation and present the world with a fait accompli. For this, he needs to create a new administrative architecture for the country and to introduce a new way for governing it, one that accommodates not only his interests and those of his allies but also the interests and concerns of some of his enemies as well, now that they can no longer pose a threat to Russia’s interests in the country.
Putin is going about this cleverly, apparently mindful of the lessons of the old Soviet experiences in Afghanistan, as well as those of Syria itself during its long intervention in the Lebanese civil war.
The lessons of Afghanistan seem to be compelling Putin to focus on the doable and to avoid overreach. This is why helping Syria’s genocidal leader, Bashar Al-Assad, reestablish his control over the whole country, as per the latter’s desire, is not in the card. That would require a much larger deployment of troops and resources than Putin is willing to commit.
Meanwhile, the lessons of the Syrian intervention in Lebanon underscores the wisdom of avoiding overreliance on one particular ally and of trying to be equidistant from all warring parties in order to maintain the appearance of a fair overlord. It also avoids transforming any particular ally or party into a likely rival, or at least an unruly trouble-maker. As such, Putin cannot risk re-empowering Assad or giving too much leeway to Iran.
In fact, at this stage, to Putin, Assad is no longer as useful as he was during the early days of the Russian intervention in Syria, and Putin doesn’t seem to be personally attached to him. Assad does not appear destined to be the Syrian version of the Chechen leader and longtime Putin’s ally, Ramzan Kadirov. The latter fought in the trenches and has blood on his hands, quite literally, while Assad sits in his palace letting the people around him do all the dirty work, while he keeps washing his hands of any culpability. A man whose mind and worldview have been shaped by his experiences in the KGB will not hold both men in equal regard. To Putin, Kadirov has become a reliable ally because he doesn’t bother pretend to be what he is not and he accepts the role that Putin has assigned to him. Assad, on the other hand, will always seem to Putin like a weasel with delusions of grandeur, a pitiful and untrustworthy creature that needs to be put on a leash, one that will keep getting tighter and shorter until the moment comes for some final neck-snapping.
Until then, however, the weasel has his uses, so Assad’s occasional off-script statements and moves will be tolerated. And Putin will wait to see how the Trump administration’s plans in Syria take shape and what change the elections in France and Germany will put on the table.
Moreover, Putin and his team will be busy running his new political process for Syria in Astana, Kazakhstan, the seemingly “neutral” country that enjoys good diplomatic relations with all states taking part in the conflict, including Iran and Turkey. Having convinced rebel groups to take part in the process alongside the Syrian opposition and representatives of the Assad regime, Iran, and Turkey, Putin has built himself a laboratory in which he can test out various political formulas, including the offer of a new constitution for the country—all while undermining the Geneva process run by UN envoy Staffan de Mistura.
But until a suitable agreement materializes, Putin will prefer to keep Assad in play, even if Assad continues to misbehave and tries to derail any potential agreement. The real decisive factor as far as Putin’s calculations are concerned is the willingness of the Trump administration to endorse an agreement, while showing some flexibility on the crisis in Ukraine. This is what ultimately matter to Putin, and what will ultimately coax him to move fast to close a deal on Syria. Assad’s desires and shenanigans are a sideshow.
Another factor in this formula that is bound to influence and complicate Putin’s calculations is represented by Iran’s growing ambitions, and Israel’s security needs. Iran has already built its own militias in the country and continues to grow them by the day. It clearly has plans to build its own military bases in Syria, including a naval base near Tartous. That fact combined with its presence alongside Hezbollah militias in the southern parts of the country presents a real security challenge to Israel. Putin is aware of this, and seems comfortable with allowing Israel to strike Hezbollah and Iranian targets in the southern parts of the county, including in the periphery of Damascus itself. But a formula for balancing Israeli and Iranian interests in Syria remains elusive at this stage. This is not an issue that will likely be resolved in the near future and will require continuous adjustment and recalibration on Putin’s part, over time.
Russia could play a far more decisive role than it is playing in the current battles taking place in the province of Daraa in southern Syria pitting Iran-backed pro-regime militias against rebel groups. The battles started few weeks ago as part of a rebel offensive to take wrest control of the province from pro-regime militias as well as units affiliated with the Islamic State. Despite launching a few air strikes against rebel positions during the last couple of weeks, Putin seems to be taking more of a wait-and-see approach. Perhaps he is not too unhappy with the fact that Iran-backed militias seem to be losing out to rebels supported by Jordan. A stronger rebel presence in the south could help Putin offset Iranian influence there, thus accommodating some of Israel’s demands.
Considering all these calculations, 2017 seems unlikely to bring us any closer to resolution of the Syrian conflict, though some progress in the fight against ISIS in the northern and northeastern parts of the country might well take place. The turf war between pro-regime militias and rebels groups will continue, so will the internal rivalry pitting various rebel groups against each other—a tendency that has recently began plaguing pro-regime militias as well. Israel’s strikes against Iranian and Hezbollah targets will also continue, so will the Turkish intervention in northern Syria. But, barring a major shift in U.S. policy under the Trump administration, Putin will use the next few months to consolidate his position as the main architect of Syria’s future, with all the headaches and benefits that that reality involves.