U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the possibility of a joint approach in Syria during a phone call on Tuesday, with both agreeing to increase their cooperation in efforts to find a solution to the conflict.
Although the White House pointed out that the U.S. and Russia have come to an agreement that a cease-fire is needed to end the humanitarian crisis, further negotiations will likely be required to address the leaders’ own objectives in Syria.
Syria Deeply spoke with three experts on Russia and Russian policy about what may be put on the table during future negotiations with the U.S. Here are the – at times extremely diverse – viewpoints of the director of APCO Global Solutions and former senior adviser to Treasury and White House officials Raisa Sheynberg, Russian political analyst Vladimir Frolov and senior foreign policy writer for Gazeta.ru, Alexander Bratersky.
Syria Deeply: What is Russia’s primary objective in Syria? How could potential negotiations with the U.S. threaten it?
Alexander Bratersky: Russia has several goals in Syria. The first one is, of course, geopolitical: Russia wants to present itself as a world player again, not only a regional one. Having a presence in the Middle East has been important since USSR times.
It’s not all about defending [Syrian president Bashar] Assad. As soon as Russia, Iran and the U.S. can agree on a future for Assad, he will step down. If Syria won’t remain as one country, Russia might be satisfied with a presence in a potential Alawite part of Syria. This would also be OK for Israel, as it would prefer Russia there over Iran. Iran has different goals in Syria, so we might see those collide with the Russians. The same is true for Turkey. So Russia will need to maneuver carefully.
According to the latest news, half of Russia’s military planes were removed from Syria. This is an indication that Russia wants to leave after it achieves some sort of solution with Assad or Mr. X as a leader.
Raisa Sheynberg: The very nature of the question regarding Russia’s objectives in Syria makes an assumption that Russia has a discrete goal in the outcome of the Syrian conflict. My assumption is actually that Russia is after something much more amorphous, and the fundamental mistake of U.S. and Western negotiators and policymakers is to assume that the Kremlin can be convinced to give up on Assad through a Western offer or concession. While the U.S. and the West would likely define their goals in Syria in general terms as the cessation of violence, democratic change in government and a political solution to the conflict, I would argue that the Russian government does not have similarly articulate goals.
The likelihood is that Russia would prefer a slow burn to the conflict and sees any resolution as one that will primarily be achieved through military action. Also, Russia sees this fight as one primarily against the forces of extremism and terrorism, not a fight for representative democracy and to depose a strongman. While the Kremlin will openly condemn the suffering of civilians, the fact that they see the source of the chaos as terrorism and Islamic extremism suggests that Russia sees the solution from a military vantage point and one that maintains a strongman.
I don’t think a negotiation process threatens Russia. It seems to me the Russians are happy to be at the table and participate in negotiations. Moscow places a high premium on being part of the process and being a significant stakeholder with a say at the negotiating table, as we saw with respect to the Iran nuclear issue.
Vladimir Frolov: Russia wants to look important and equal to the U.S., and it wants to breach the isolation over Ukraine. It also wants to prevent another regime change through a popular armed uprising instigated and supported by the West (as Moscow believes). Russia has disabused the U.S. of the illusion that Russia was not important and could be ignored. It is no longer.
But [now] Russia wants a settlement in Syria, which both Iran and Assad do not want. So it’s more of a question of Russia’s policy with regard to Iran, and Russia’s ability to actually control Assad. He is not Russia’s to sell.
Syria Deeply: What would it take for the U.S. to get Russia to drop its support for Assad?
Bratersky: Only if the U.S. guarantees that Russia can keep its positions in Syria, which includes the military base in Latakia as well as a political influence on the future of the country, Russia would drop its support for Assad. Russia has already sort of changed sides; it conducts missions with Turkey, a NATO member, against ISIS forces, turning a blind eye to Turkey’s pressure on the Kurds, who always had very good ties to Moscow.
When it comes to U.S. negotiations, I assume that when [Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson was in Moscow, they might have talked about Assad’s departure. We might see a deal in which Russia forces Assad to step down, securing a place for him to stay in Russia or a third country. It would work with all kinds of diplomacy means available. Assad is an asset, and they will try to sell him for a good price.
Sheynberg: It’s plausible that, if Assad continues to cross “red lines” and to launch chemical attacks against the population, that the calculus of backing Assad will change. It’s also possible that terrorist attacks in major Russian population centers will escalate, which could press the Kremlin to again take stock of their Syria strategy. The latter, however, is likely to lead to an escalation of military action and cooperation with Turkey, for instance, rather than an all-out push for a negotiated solution.
Frolov: What Russia might want from the U.S. to quietly reduce the support for Assad is not for the U.S. to give: Russia wants to control Ukraine and have Crimea as Russian. It might have been satisfied with a deal that keeps the regime in place, but that is no longer the U.S. plan after the chemical attack. What we have now is that the Trump administration has conditioned the drastic improvement in U.S.-Russian relations on a change of Moscow’s policies in Syria and eastern Ukraine, and left Moscow to ponder this dilemma. It is still sleeping on it.
There is no prize that Washington can plausibly offer Moscow for ditching Assad to compensate for the loss of face and the perception of weakness to U.S. pressure. The U.S. cannot give a guarantee [for the Russian base in Latakia], only the Syrians can do this. Moscow is talking to many Syrians who might give such guarantees, not only Assad.
It would be hard to structure a deal [with the U.S.], and Russia is not in full command in Syria. [It could be structured as a] political settlement with the Sunni opposition, except the al-Nusra Front, getting some real estate to control in a decentralized, regionalized Syria, perhaps Assad staying for a while in Latakia, then flying out. Moscow proposed a constitution to this effect: decentralized government; local forces under some foreign supervision governing themselves in a loosely whole Syria; Russia, Turkey and Iran get their fiefdoms to control to provide stability. And the U.S., E.U., GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) fund the reconstruction. But I do not believe it’s feasible because of Assad, Iran and Nusra.
Syria Deeply: Will any continued U.S. military action result in the Russians doing the same in order to maintain the stature and presence they have built in the Middle East over the past few years?
Bratersky: The last thing that Putin wants is a military conflict with the U.S. in the Middle East. While the Russian military is much stronger than it was 10 years ago, the U.S. is still strongest by far, and everyone knows that.
Sheynberg: I think the Russians would genuinely be open to cooperating with the U.S. on military action. There’s truly no better way for them to gain legitimacy and to discredit NATO than to work directly with the most powerful and modern military on earth. Plus, the Russians really do see the common goal of fighting ISIS and Islamic extremism. I don’t think that sporadic military action by the U.S. will necessarily hasten Russian military operations.
Frolov: Yes, Russia will escalate and try to deter the U.S. as it did during the Cold War. It does not fear confrontation, as it knows the U.S. will not cross the line, and neither will Russia. Both will flex their muscles for the domestic audience. Putin cannot afford to look weak during the election.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.
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