For Russia, it makes little sense to abandon Assad. Russia’s intervention in Syria was not only about rescuing the regime, but also to send a message to the Middle East that Moscow could once again become an alternative to the United States and offer the security that has underpinned the relations between Washington and the Arab states. By showcasing its advanced weapons and pouring millions into efforts to crush the armed Syrian opposition movement, Moscow has sought to demonstrate that it has both the capacity and capabilities to become a reliable ally.
To abandon Assad and facilitate a change in leadership would dispel the notion that Moscow can be trusted.
In other words, to abandon Assad and facilitate a change in leadership would dispel the notion that Moscow can be trusted. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been experiencing significant turbulence in his relations with Washington, is unlikely to turn to Moscow if he felt there were a possibility that Putin might attempt to discard him later. The same applies to Emir Tamim bin Hamad of Qatar who feels increasingly alienated by a Trump administration that cares little for his growing isolation in the region.
Given that Moscow’s default and most favorable position is therefore to keep the Assad regime standing under Bashar al-Assad himself, then any indication that Putin might seek a change to the administration in Damascus suggests that Russia is not as dominant as has been commonly touted, and more importantly, that Assad is more of an independent actor than is commonly suggested.
In other words, the only scenario where Russia would envisage removing Assad would be if the Syrian leader resisted or challenged Russian policy, which would mark a significant break and major change in the most consistent dynamic in the Syrian conflict.
There is no doubt that Russia’s priorities in Syria have shifted: Turkey, which refuses to concede on Idlib, and Iran — preparing for a post-war Syria and seeking to emulate its Iraq foreign policy model, has embarked on initiatives to embed its militias in the Syrian political framework. This was no more evident than in Moscow’s muted reaction to Israeli airstrikes on its “ally” Iran’s forces in Syria, and in Putin’s generous ceasefire deal that ended Turkey’s military operation against Assad’s forces in the Idlib province.
For Russia, it is now time to plan for a post-war Syria which poses its own unique set of challenges for its foreign policy.
For Russia, it is now time to plan for a post-war Syria which poses its own unique set of challenges for its foreign policy. While Russia has found it within its means to send arms, planes, and establish military bases, the prospect of rebuilding a nation is an entirely different (and far more costly) process. Moreover, the risks associated with a post-war Syria far exceed those during the war.
In conflict, Russia has firmly established itself as the most dominant force amidst international inaction and taken advantage to secure access to the Mediterranean via its base in Tartus. In peace, however, Russia lacks the required resources and general will to commit in a manner that protects its hard-earned influence. Assad’s needs in a post-war Syria are not arms, but funds, allies, renewed diplomatic ties, and trade deals. Russia cannot provide for all of this and Assad will find that he must liaise with Europe, the Gulf, China, and at some point, even Washington. The process of establishing these ties will most definitely come at the expense of Russian interests.
Moreover, Russia is increasingly concerned that while it has provided the necessary support to rescue the regime in Damascus, Iran stands to benefit the most by virtue of its ties to parties on the ground, and the presence of ground troops of which Russia, by contrast, has very few.
Russia is well aware that Iran, a long-term and trusted ally of the Syrian regime, continues to enjoy very close ties to Assad.
Russia is also well aware that Iran, a long-term and trusted ally of the Syrian regime even before the outbreak of the conflict, was the architect of the plan that brought Russia into the war and continues to enjoy very close ties to Assad himself. Assad does not expect Iran to help him rebuild Syria. However, he will expect, with good reason, a continuation of the close security relationship upon which he was able to successfully remain in the Presidential Palace.
[Why Putin’s Deal with Erdogan in Syria is All About Iran]
The problem for Russia is compounded by the lack of alternative options. The Syrian opposition are firmly backed by Turkey and unlikely to abandon Erdogan who has protected their seat at all negotiation tables for a power that obliterated their hopes of bringing down the regime. It is for this reason that Putin has sought to avoid antagonizing Ankara and has demonstrated an unusual willingness to entertain Turkey’s military posturing.
The recent rumors of Russia seeking to oust Assad are therefore unlikely to be true. Although, it is possible that they were instigated to warn Assad. However, the Syrian regime has always been notoriously self-assured and has always viewed itself as a regional power in its own right, one that does not need to align itself to an ‘orbit’. Even amidst an unprecedented position of weakness, the Assad-led regime believes it has enough options to leverage against Putin and complicate any plans that might undermine its position in Syria after the conflict.
Any feud between Iran and Moscow works to Assad’s favor and, when he considers his options, he will believe that Iran can help him contain any attempts by Moscow to undermine him.
Any feud between Iran and Moscow works to Assad’s favor and when he considers his options, he will believe that Iran, which has remained firmly committed to its Iraqi allies such as Moqtada al-Sadr, Nouri al-Maliki, Hadi al-Amiri, et al, even in the face of Washington, can help him contain any attempts by Moscow to undermine him.
On the issue of Turkey’s presence in the North, Assad is now being recognized by the Gulf states while Algeria and Tunisia, which have long argued for the return of Syria to the Arab League, have recently reiterated the need to accelerate this process. He will believe that if Russia continues to drag its heels on Idlib, then he has alternative options to help him act independently and apply greater pressure on both Moscow and Ankara.
Assad can plausibly lobby an Algeria that is increasingly concerned with Turkey’s tactics in Libya despite initially sympathizing with its intervention. Furthermore, Assad can tap into Emirati, Saudi, and Egyptian networks to squeeze Ankara internationally, exacerbating Erdogan’s difficult domestic situation, and subsequently offering Turkey a way out of Syria at a time closer to Turkish elections by pushing for a restoration of pre-2011 ties.
Assad’s many options mean that Russia cannot easily remove him without jeopardizing all it has invested in Syria. Moreover, Assad is merely the front-man of a regime that remains united on the need to preserve itself irrespective of who is the “face”. If Assad utilizes these possibilities, Russia will be left with few choices except to pressure Turkey to accelerate the process of clearing Idlib of “extremist” elements or facilitate a peace process that ultimately results in a government led by Assad himself.
The possibility of prolonging the conflict is becoming increasingly more difficult as US elections approach and a possible rapprochement between Tehran and Washington is put on the table once more. If Iran and Washington agree, then Russia will find that in the space of a year it has gone from being the most dominant power to one that has become embroiled in a conflict that is far too expensive, and far too difficult to navigate.
Therefore, it may well be that Russia is more likely to cede to Assad to preserve its hard-earned influence than it is for Assad to cede to Russia.