Russia’s game plan in Syria

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By ÖMER TAŞPINAR : –

At first sight, the Russian military buildup in Syria defies all expectations that Moscow is ready to give up its support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Yet, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s move may well be the first salvo in an attempt to pave the road for diplomacy. The Russian strategy is probably aimed at allowing Damascus to negotiate from a position of strength rather than weakness in the next round of diplomacy. It is clear by now that the Assad regime will never be able to restore its authority over all of Syria.

On the other hand, it is equally clear that Iran and Russia will never allow a collapse of the Assad regime without assurances that their national interests in Syria will be safeguarded. For Russia, this means maintaining a military presence in the country, giving Moscow access to the Mediterranean Sea. For Iran, the main national interest in Syria is access to Lebanon via Hezbollah. Thanks to support from Iran and Russia, the Alawite regime can escape annihilation at the hands of the Sunni majority population. Under such circumstances, the Syrian civil war can continue for many more years with no clear victory for either side. This is why only a negotiated settlement will fully stop the war. Russia knows this. As a result, Moscow wants to prop up its client state so that it can negotiate harder. Such a strategy explains why Russia is holding military operations near Latakia.

Not surprisingly, Putin would never admit that helping Assad so that he can negotiate from a position of strength is his strategy. This is why the Kremlin argues that the deployment of warplanes and air defense units near Latakia is aimed at confronting the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). According to The New York Times, Putin will give a speech at the United Nations General Assembly to make this case. Washington is not stupid enough to believe what Moscow is saying. The White House sees the Russian effort to begin bolstering both Assad’s forces and its own presence on the ground in Syria as having several aims. The most obvious one is to help Assad, Russia’s most important ally in the Middle East, at a time when the Assad regime is losing ever more ground to various insurgent forces. The other is to divert attention from the crisis in Ukraine and force the West to acknowledge that Russia is still a power that can project military power.
There are already signs that the Russian strategy is working.

Washington is willing to seek common ground with Russia, partly because its own strategy to fight ISIL is not working. A stark indicator was the Pentagon’s admission that its $500 million program to train moderate Syrian opposition forces to fight ISIL has only four or five fighters who are actually on the ground. Needless to say, this is a highly embarrassing for a superpower that at least on paper is committed to destroying ISIL. This situation makes clear the fact that ISIL cannot be confronted effectively unless there is a political settlement in Syria between the regime and opposition forces. The main impediment to such a negotiated settlement has been Putin’s insistence that Assad remains in power. But even Russia agrees that a transition is necessary. The question, therefore, is how long Assad can symbolically maintain his position as the ruler of the country.

All these dynamics suggest that after four years of ferocious bloodshed leading to a quarter of a million dead, 4 million refugees and countless millions displaced within Syria, time is finally ripe for another round of diplomacy. Given the conciliatory signs from Washington, US diplomats will probably test whether the Russians will use their military buildup of the Syrian regime as leverage with Assad in order to convince him to a negotiated settlement.

The objective should be a transition government that will maintain elements of the regime in place with Assad’s consent to a timetable after which he leaves power.

At first sight, the Russian military buildup in Syria defies all expectations that Moscow is ready to give up its support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Yet, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s move may well be the first salvo in an attempt to pave the road for diplomacy. The Russian strategy is probably aimed at allowing Damascus to negotiate from a position of strength rather than weakness in the next round of diplomacy. It is clear by now that the Assad regime will never be able to restore its authority over all of Syria.

On the other hand, it is equally clear that Iran and Russia will never allow a collapse of the Assad regime without assurances that their national interests in Syria will be safeguarded. For Russia, this means maintaining a military presence in the country, giving Moscow access to the Mediterranean Sea. For Iran, the main national interest in Syria is access to Lebanon via Hezbollah. Thanks to support from Iran and Russia, the Alawite regime can escape annihilation at the hands of the Sunni majority population. Under such circumstances, the Syrian civil war can continue for many more years with no clear victory for either side. This is why only a negotiated settlement will fully stop the war. Russia knows this. As a result, Moscow wants to prop up its client state so that it can negotiate harder. Such a strategy explains why Russia is holding military operations near Latakia.

Not surprisingly, Putin would never admit that helping Assad so that he can negotiate from a position of strength is his strategy. This is why the Kremlin argues that the deployment of warplanes and air defense units near Latakia is aimed at confronting the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). According to The New York Times, Putin will give a speech at the United Nations General Assembly to make this case. Washington is not stupid enough to believe what Moscow is saying. The White House sees the Russian effort to begin bolstering both Assad’s forces and its own presence on the ground in Syria as having several aims. The most obvious one is to help Assad, Russia’s most important ally in the Middle East, at a time when the Assad regime is losing ever more ground to various insurgent forces. The other is to divert attention from the crisis in Ukraine and force the West to acknowledge that Russia is still a power that can project military power.
There are already signs that the Russian strategy is working.

Washington is willing to seek common ground with Russia, partly because its own strategy to fight ISIL is not working. A stark indicator was the Pentagon’s admission that its $500 million program to train moderate Syrian opposition forces to fight ISIL has only four or five fighters who are actually on the ground. Needless to say, this is a highly embarrassing for a superpower that at least on paper is committed to destroying ISIL. This situation makes clear the fact that ISIL cannot be confronted effectively unless there is a political settlement in Syria between the regime and opposition forces. The main impediment to such a negotiated settlement has been Putin’s insistence that Assad remains in power. But even Russia agrees that a transition is necessary. The question, therefore, is how long Assad can symbolically maintain his position as the ruler of the country.

All these dynamics suggest that after four years of ferocious bloodshed leading to a quarter of a million dead, 4 million refugees and countless millions displaced within Syria, time is finally ripe for another round of diplomacy. Given the conciliatory signs from Washington, US diplomats will probably test whether the Russians will use their military buildup of the Syrian regime as leverage with Assad in order to convince him to a negotiated settlement.

The objective should be a transition government that will maintain elements of the regime in place with Assad’s consent to a timetable after which he leaves power.

http://www.todayszaman.com/columnist/omer-taspinar/russias-game-plan-in-syria_399869.html

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