October 22, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: Assad in Moscow
• Assad made a surprise visit to Moscow this week, his first trip abroad since the start of the civil war and a sign of how dependent he is on Russian support
• The visit was a high-profile sign of confidence on the part of Assad that he could leave his country without fear of coup or assassination
• Syria is important to Russia, but is of limited value if it remains broken by war; if Assad stands in the way of a peace deal, Russia will have no interest in protecting him
• A planned October 23 meeting in Vienna between the foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United States is further evidence the situation in Syria is rapidly evolving—though that is not the same as progress.
President Assad signaled the importance of Russian support for his survival by visiting Moscow on Tuesday. The visit was unannounced and brief, but rich in significance. This was the first time that Assad has risked leaving Syria since the uprising began early in 2011, and it shows both that he is confident enough to leave Damascus for a day, but insufficiently confident of Russia’s unquestioning support to see no need to do so. The reverberations of the recently initiated Russian airstrikes in Syria continue to shake the status quo of the grinding and bloody conflict, as the Assad regime seeks to relieve the pressure on its shrinking territorial holdings with ground assaults backed by Russian air support. Aware that Russia will aim for as brief an engagement as possible, and that it has firmly ruled out the deployment of ground forces, Assad may have hoped to persuade Putin not to back a political settlement that would involve his early departure.
There are several reasons why Assad might fear that Russia is keen to wind down its military intervention and find a political deal. First, Russia has achieved its main objective of establishing a stronger presence in the region. Its position is at risk, however, if the Assad regime collapses entirely. After three weeks of intensive airstrikes against the rebel groups that most immediately threaten the regime, the Syrian army has made disappointingly little progress on the ground, despite additional support from Iranian advisers, Shi’a militias, and Hizballah forces. Furthermore, the Russian attacks are increasingly resulting in civilian casualties; the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights calculated that just over half of those killed so far have been civilians—many of them women and children. This may not tug at Putin's heartstrings, but it is bad for business and challenges the Russian narrative of deadly accuracy against terrorist targets. Insofar as the Russians have wanted to test their weapons systems and logistical support in a live fire exercise, three weeks is probably enough—any longer and the weapons will begin to look ineffective and the support and resupply mechanisms show signs of strain.
In addition, there are now reports of three Russian ‘volunteer’ soldiers being killed in a rebel mortar attack, as well as reports of three thwarted terrorist plots in Russia itself associated with groups in Syria. In recognition of its central role in support of the regime, both Jabhat al-Nusra and the so-called Islamic State have urged attacks against Russians and Russian interests, wherever they may be. Russia may not much fear these threats, but by mentioning again during his meeting with Assad that thousands of fighters in Syria are from the former Soviet Union, President Putin continues to elevate levels of anxiety in Russia about domestic terrorism. A successful attack will challenge his leadership.
The mood for a political settlement is also growing elsewhere, as the positions of the external adversaries begin to coincide. Saudi Arabia, which has been the most resistant to Assad remaining in power, reiterated clearly on Monday that he can stay until a transitional governing council comprising opposition and government figures is formed. Secretary of State John Kerry has begun another trip around the region sounding out partners, and Russia would not want to find itself on the wrong side of a broad-based political initiative. Unless it is seen as a facilitator of peace, Russia is less likely to be able to capitalize on its military investment. Immediately after Assad’s visit, Putin spoke to his counterparts in Turkey and Saudi Arabia; their Foreign Ministers will join Kerry and Lavrov in Vienna at the end of the week. In addition, Russia has continued over the last months to invite Syrian opposition figures for talks in Moscow, even though all have so far refused.
In the heated aftermath of the Russian intervention, all sides appear highly motivated to increase support to their respective sides in the civil war. An optimistic view is that this is last-minute tactical maneuvering to strengthen negotiating positions—while the pessimistic and perhaps realistic view is that the war is about to get worse. Assad’s visit to Moscow makes it clear that, no matter the short-term, Putin and Assad both intend to play a role in the long-term end game. However, while Assad may have been welcomed in Moscow, he would be foolish to think that Russia sees him as more than a high value card to be played or held according to circumstances. Perhaps it was unfortunate for the Syrian President that he was not in Moscow long enough to do a little house hunting.
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