Putin and Assad: Is There a Split?

Speculation abounds on the relationship between Moscow’s military drawdown announcement and the state of bilateral relations between Russia and Syria’s Assad regime. Does the Russian move indicate a split between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad? If there is a split, is it strategic or tactical? If these parties are diverging, what are the implications for the United Nations-supervised Syria peace talks?

This attempt to answer these questions does not purport to offer ground truth. Insight into the intentions of the key actors is less than comprehensive, and key details regarding the planning and execution of the Russian drawdown are opaque. There are, for example, differing views on whether the announcement was coordinated with or even previewed for Damascus. The view here is that Vladimir Putin feels no need to coordinate anything at all with the likes of Bashar al-Assad, a useful tool but a tool nonetheless. But it is not known (at least in these precincts) whether he did coordinate or not. Perhaps some degree of coordination and/or advance notice may have transpired between those most affected: senior Russian, Iranian, and Syrian military commanders who had coordinated air-ground combat operations for the preceding six months.

The mission underlying Russia’s military intervention in Syria was threefold: first, prevent Assad from being defeated militarily; second, pound nationalist rebels and associated civilians so as to facilitate eventually presenting the West with a binary choice between the regime and the Islamic State (ISIL, ISIS, Daesh); and third—with the onset of the Vienna peace process—make Assad invulnerable to removal via negotiations.

Putin went to none of this effort and expense because of any respect he has for Bashar al-Assad. He did it because Assad is the personification of the “state” he wishes to “save” from what he tells his domestic constituents and the world is the democratization and regime change campaign of the United States. Taking carefully into account the performance of Washington during the length of the Syrian crisis, Putin evidently calculated he could win decisively in terms of saving Assad. Unlike others, he seemed not to fear becoming bogged down in a quagmire. His air force terrorized civilians even more efficiently than his Syrian client had. And despite the pretext of having entered Syria to fight ISIS, he concentrated the bulk of his firepower against nationalist rebels, some of whom had received training and arms from the United States.

Having achieved or advanced his three military objectives and facing the prospect of diminishing returns, Putin is now focused on the diplomatic goal. Total victory, in Putin’s view, would be in hand if and when Washington decides to swallow deeply and go into partnership with Assad against ISIS. This would define victory. This would signify Russia’s full return to greatness. Yet this will require time, and that is what the Geneva talks are for: time.

The last thing Vladimir Putin needs is for Bashar al-Assad to torpedo the talk-fest through some combination of over-the-top civilian slaughter and refusal to engage at some minimal level of civility with the opposition delegation. He needs the Assad regime to run the clock. He has already rescued his unsavory client from early transition. Now he needs Assad to buy him some time so that Washington can be softened up. Putin knows that Barack Obama will not become Bashar al-Assad’s partner in the next twenty minutes. But how about six months from now? What if the regime stops the wholesale civilian slaughter, opens up everywhere to UN humanitarian relief convoys, and releases tens of thousands of starving, tortured people—starting perhaps with women and children—from its dungeons?

Assad may sense a trap, or at least a mistake. His survival strategy has worked to date: collective punishment; mass homicide; taking hostage Syrian minority communities; and, where possible, live-and-let-live with ISIS. Yes, he would welcome the West crawling back into his good graces. But if Putin is playing for time it means setting aside what Bashar has seen as the winning strategy. This is risky. If the bombing stops local governance may crop up; peaceful demonstrations may resume; refugees may begin to return. And Bashar may well ask himself, ‘Once I have played my court jester role in Putin’s grand dramatization of Russia’s return as a great power—once Obama or his successor has kissed my ring—of what value am I to Russia? Putin cannot touch me, but what can I expect from Moscow in the way of gratuities once its curtain comes down?’

The hypothesis here is that Assad’s value to Putin would either expire or hit a steep downslope once Washington knuckles under. The hope here is that Washington would never knuckle under in the sense of going into business with a person whose war crimes and crimes against humanity make the self-styled ISIS “caliph” look like a pickpocket and make eastern Syria safe for ISIS. This may be Assad’s conclusion as well: that Putin will never grasp the brass ring and he (Assad) would be taking a dangerous and futile risk.

Assad is not without assets. He has Iran, which needs him for the secure Syrian hinterland he provides to Tehran’s Lebanese franchise: Hezbollah. He has Shia foreign fighters assembled by Iran to help his army hold territory taken with the help of Russian aircraft. Indeed, he has residual Russian air combat power still inside Syria. He has the assurance that Putin—albeit for his own reasons—does not want him to fall anytime soon. And he has a hollowed-out West, one that will neither lift a finger to protect Syrian civilians from him nor move decisively to kill ISIS—his essential partner in crime—in the east.

Having spent quality time with skilled Russian diplomats in early and mid-2012, this writer heard many stories of Assad (father and son) regime ingratitude in the face of services rendered by the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation. Just because Russia has saved the regime, one should not expect feelings of thankful warmth to flow from the Assad inner circle. Assad and his colleagues process matters in purely Baathist terms: the distillation of cynical self-interest and pathological self-importance. ‘Russia is pursuing its interests. Syria is of transcendent, cosmic importance. We are enabling Putin, the president of a vodka-soaked country with a moribund economy, to prance about on the world stage. But he should not put us at risk for the sake of his big dream. Besides, we got from him what we needed.’

At the strategic level, however, it appears that Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime all remain on the same page, albeit for their own separate (but compatible) reasons. They all believe Assad should remain in his seat as President of the Syrian Arab Republic. Washington assesses quite accurately that Assad in power anywhere precludes a united Syrian front against ISIS. But for Russia, Iran, and Assad, ISIS in Syria is an asset.

At the tactical level—particularly with respect to the Geneva peace talks—Moscow and Damascus may be in different places. Early indicators suggest that Assad may elect to treat this round of Geneva talks with the same contempt he demonstrated in 2013 and 2104. What, in practical terms, can Putin do about it?

Russian interests—more precisely the interests of Vladimir Putin—dictate that the personification of the Syrian state remain in place pending Washington’s decision to work with that state against ISIS. President Obama tries to persuade Putin he can best save the Syrian state by ditching Assad: a hard sell, especially in the absence of leverage. But can Putin ditch Assad, even if so persuaded? Does Iran not have a vote? Indeed, is Bashar al-Assad himself without resources? Has he found any crime unthinkable in the pursuit of personal political survival? Has he heeded anyone who has told him to step aside or beware a red line?

Frederic C. Hof is a Resident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: Photo: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad speaks during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, October 20, 2015. Assad flew into Moscow on Tuesday for a meeting with Putin during which the two men discussed their joint military campaign against Islamist militants in Syria, a Kremlin spokesman said. Picture taken October 20, 2015