Russia is in search of the ultimate deal with Syria.
At present, Washington is pressing Moscow to halt Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s military offensive into southwestern Syria; Moscow, meanwhile, wants Washington to abandon the areas in Syria’s northeast that it has liberated from the Islamic State. With a summit between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin looming, Russia may try to lure the United States into a deal that would largely benefit Assad, Iran, and the violent extremists they inspire. Or, Moscow may calculate that it can have its way without a deal.
The Assad regime is attacking an area designated a “de-escalation zone” under a 2017 understanding between Russia, Jordan, and the United States. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley recently implored the Assad regime to stop violating the ceasefire in Syria’s southwest, and said that the United States expects Russia to use its influence on Damascus to convince it to halt its destabilizing actions. “Russia will ultimately bear responsibility for any further escalations in Syria,” she said.
Jordan has said they will take no more refugees, but if there’s a human tsunami wave of panicked people they will come under great pressure from the UN and NGOs to act in a humanitarian manner, while Israel fears the impact of those fleeing the mayhem on Jordan’s stability. Jordan’s King Abdullah and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu both want Putin to muzzle Assad, his client. But news reports suggest that Russian aircrafts are joining the bloodshed.
Still, for Moscow, Assad-regime operations in the southwest are risky. True, the image of a triumphant Assad is essential to Putin’s domestic political narrative of a resurgent Russia. Yet Moscow must deal with a client and an Iranian partner whose actions, like chemical-weapons strikes, sometimes risk American intervention, or strikes from Israel when it perceives an Iranian threat in Syria’s southwest. There is no doubt that Putin wants Assad in the saddle indefinitely—the challenge is to keep him and the Iranians from doing stupid stuff in the southwest.
According to Haley, recent Syrian operations—barrel bombs, artillery, rockets, and air strikes on residential neighborhoods—have led to the displacement of more than 11,000 people. If the regime’s campaign prompts yet another wave of refugees, it would come as little surprise.
What might Putin do to turn a volatile situation to Assad’s advantage? He may counsel his client to cool it in the short term to give him a chance to work on his American counterpart. A victory over ISIS in the northeast by the United States and its allies would produce the one thing Russia and Assad fear most: an attractive alternative to an incompetent and corrupt crime family.
One could imagine Putin offering Assad a deal designed to restore him as the ruler of all of Syria. First, he would need to assure Trump during their upcoming meeting that Assad’s offensive in the southwest will soon conclude, and that he would send in Russian forces to enforce a de-escalation zone. In return, he would ask Trump to quickly move U.S. forces out of Syria, allowing him to declare victory. Once the Americans had put Syria in their rear-view mirror, Putin might offer Assad and the Iranians the right to occupy oil-rich eastern Syria, with an assurance that Russian and Syrian forces will gradually reclaim the southwest, piece by piece.
President Trump might be tempted to take such a deal—a temptation worth resisting. A nearly four-year effort against Islamist extremism would be wasted, as undisciplined Iranian-led militiamen and rapacious regime gunmen occupy an area rich in petroleum and agricultural resources. The alternative—proper stabilization, starting with the rebuilding of Raqqa, the former capital of ISIS—will be neither easy nor quick. Allies and partners will be needed. But giving in to Russia may render all of Syria ungovernable for decades, giving ISIS 2.0 and its enablers a life-saving and gratuitous victory.