Moscow is, as you know, a lovely place for a summer holiday. In the past few weeks, the Russian capital has seen a succession of visits by Syrian opposition figures, government representatives, and regional officials, including Saudi Arabia’s powerful Minister of Defense and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia’s new king, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, have also agreed to visit each other’s countries.
Several of these visits seem to be related to the many Syrian political conferences held since the start of 2015. In particular, the Russian government now seems determined to convene a new round of its own line of Syrian peace talks, following up on the conference known as Moscow I in January this year, Moscow II in April, and the related Astana meeting in Kazakhstan in late May. Meanwhile, United Nations special envoy Staffan de Mistura’s plans for a resumption of the Geneva peace process, which stalled after the Geneva II conference in January-February 2014, are nearing fruition. The UN special envoy is expected to deliver a proposal by the end of this month. At the same time, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are working on their own political tracks while the exiled opposition and various armed rebels continue to meet in Turkey, which has ramped up support for the rebels.
The Russian government seems to be angling to use the Moscow process to promote certain secular and reformist opposition figures deemed amenable to a compromise with their ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in order to secure seats for them in any upcoming UN-sponsored Geneva talks. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has even recently said that the plans for a Geneva III conference could “come under threat” unless Moscow III materializes first.
Many recent rumors also link the renewed Russian interest in Syria’s opposition to Moscow’s parallel contacts with Saudi Arabia, a chief backer of the Syrian rebels. In the Saudi online magazine Elaph, Syrian journalist Bahia Mardini continues to report on what she claims is a Russian attempt to convince the Syrian government of a new formula for peace talks. According to Mardini (who is married to the exiled opposition activist Ammar Qurabi, whom I have previously interviewed on Syria in Crisis), these contacts have intensified after the recent setbacks suffered by the Syrian government in the northwest, south, and east. She claims that new differences are opening up between Assad and Putin, with the Russians allegedly seeking to convince their Syrian ally to bring opposition members into his government and resume contacts with pro-rebel states in the region, such as Saudi Arabia or Turkey, in order to more effectively fight the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
In Mardini’s telling, what the Russians have in mind is a unity government that would at some point assume executive power, thereby potentially sidelining Assad. This would be in line with the Geneva I principles adopted in 2012 by Russia, the United States, and other governments, which comprise the formal basis for both the Moscow talks and the UN’s Geneva process. But whether that is truly the plan or not, Assad has shown little interest in the idea.
Walid Muallem in Moscow
In late June, Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Muallem dropped by Moscow to hold talks with Putin, Lavrov, and Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, a Syria specialist.
Muallem was eager to put a positive spin on the meeting and both sides lavished praise on each other, but there seems to have been certain disagreements. In the meeting as well as in a public statement, Putin urged the Syrians to cooperate with other regional governments to counter the Islamic State. Muallem was less than enthusiastic:
Mr. President, we know your part in the accomplishments that Russia has achieved over this recent time. It will, however, take greater efforts yet to establish a coalition such as you spoke of, an effective coalition of neighboring countries to fight terrorism.
As you know, the main problem in Syria is that the countries that you mentioned are supporting terrorists operating in our country. But we are ready, with the help of your efforts, to make an effort to cooperate for the sake of fighting terrorism.
Later, at a press conference with Lavrov, Muallem even poked gentle fun at the Russian hopes for a regional détente:
I know that President Putin is a man capable of working miracles, which he did in the Russian Federation, but an alliance with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United States to combat terrorism requires a very big miracle.
The Syrian foreign minister then seemingly went out of his way to push back against the idea of a compromise with the Syrian opposition. In an interview with Russian television, he declared that “there is no moderate opposition” and assured viewers that parliamentary elections will be held on schedule in summer 2016 according to the current constitution. In other words, instead of experimenting with political inclusivity, the Baathist regime is planning to unilaterally reelect itself again in a show poll, as it has regularly done since 1963.
What Can Russia Really Do?
Although tensions surely exist behind the scenes when Russian and Syrian officials meet, there does not now seem to be nearly enough daylight between them to talk of a real conflict. Even if Putin should at some point decide that Assad needs to go, it’s not obvious that he can do much about it. It may seem paradoxical, but even though it is dubious whether Assad’s regime could survive without Russian aid, he doesn’t seem to respond very faithfully to Russian instructions.
Some influence exists, of course. Assad is wary of openly contradicting Putin and Syrian state media cannot love Russia loudly enough—the regime is clearly anxious to please its powerful patron. Russia is widely thought to be behind Assad’s grudging decision to negotiate on the basis of the above-mentioned Geneva I principles. Both the Syrian president and his Iranian allies seem uncomfortable with Geneva I’s vision of a unity government, but Assad has deferred to Moscow on this point. Lavrov has publicly hinted that it took some effort to convince him.
However, getting the Syrian leader to verbally accept a theoretical framework for future negotiations is very different from getting him to surrender his family’s decades-old monopoly on political power. If Russia ever moves to strip Assad of real influence, the only answer they are likely to get is a resounding nyet.
According to de Mistura’s predecessor as United Nations special envoy to Syria, the Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, Lavrov once said in exasperation that Russia has as little influence over Assad as the United States has over Israel. Indeed, in both cases—albeit for different reasons—a curious inversion of the normal order of power politics has occurred, whereby the smaller client states keep dragging their great power patrons into conflict while brushing off their pressure to compromise.
Of course Russia can pressure Assad. Putin could decide to cut back on support, knowing that Assad depends on it to stave off the rebels. He could undermine Assad by allowing stronger language in the UN Security Council, by publicly distancing himself from Assad’s regime, or by leaning on Syria’s other allies. He could also act to sap Assad’s economic and military power, by stopping deliveries of goods, arms, ammunition, or spare parts, or by pulling back military technicians, liaisons, and advisers.
If any of those things happened on a large enough scale, Assad would have no choice but to react in some way, because it would inflict immediate pain on his regime. But given the sorry state of the Syrian army and Assad’s deteriorating economic base, anything that truly injures the Damascus government or causes its supporters to lose faith in Assad’s future would be risky for Russia too. If Assad stumbles and his regime comes crashing down, Moscow’s hopes of shaping the endgame in Syria will vanish into thin air.
The Iranian Counterweight
Then there is the problem of the competition. Russian support has certainly been invaluable to Assad, but that’s true for Iranian support too. It is unlikely that either of these two longstanding Assad allies can overrule the Syrian president when it comes to core regime interests, but in terms of influence, most observers seem to think that Iran holds more cards than Russia.
Partly, this is because Iran is more in tune with Assad’s own policies. Unlike Moscow, Tehran isn’t known to have pressured Assad to accept the Geneva I principles, and the Iranians have so far shown little interest in trying to engineer a serious compromise. More importantly, while Russia is mainly sending over-the-horizon support and seeking some level of payment in return, Iran has thrown itself into the war and proved that it is willing to bleed to save the Syrian regime. Braving stringent UN sanctions and tumbling oil prices, the Iranian government has continued to lavish billions on its Syrian ally through oil deliveries and financial aid, technical and military assistance, and the mobilization of Shia volunteer fighters. As recently as May 19, Iran again pulled out its checkbook to sign up for another $1 billion credit line to Assad. With sanctions relief expected after the recent international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, pressure on the Iranian economy is likely to subside, ensuring that this support can continue.
In addition, Iran is widely believed to have a more granular grasp of what goes on in Syrian elite circles. While the Russian government mainly interfaces with official institutions in Syria—such as the Ministry of Defense—Iran has played a more complex game that includes a dense web of elite-level linkages and direct sponsorship of armed units. Tehran’s advisers, special forces, and proxy militias operate all over the battlefield, and to some extent Iran has begun reshaping Syrian security institutions in their own image. In other words, while Russia’s envoys stand outside the “black box” of the Syrian regime, looking in and trying to figure out what goes on in there, the Iranians appear to have wormed their way to the inside.
This view, while broadly shared, may be somewhat of a stereotype. The Syrian opposition is very fond of conspiracy theories about an Alawite-Shia cabal, and very proficient in producing rumors about it. Furthermore, outside observers have consistently underestimated the solidity of the Syrian government’s hard inner core, as well as the regime’s rigid internal controls. But Iran’s no-holds-barred support tells of its priorities and that level of commitment must be appreciated in kind in Damascus.
After four years of war Assad seems more beholden to Tehran than to Moscow. Also, if one ally tries to go it alone and push him, he may be able to lean against the other for support. As long as they both know this, they are unlikely to allow too wide a gap to open up between them.
Vladimir Putin may very well be sick of supporting Bashar al-Assad, who seems to have no realistic plan or even desire to settle the conflict politically. Even though they remain close allies, this intransigence is clearly at odds with Russia’s desire to somehow wind down the war and return to business as usual. But knowing the long odds they face if they single-handedly try to force the Syrian president to surrender some of his authority in the interest of peace, the rulers of the Kremlin have very limited options. They would surely rather keep Assad on as their most difficult client than unilaterally push him so hard that he slides out of Moscow’s orbit, or even out of power.