Will Russia drop its support For Assad? Will the US intervene? Will Assad stay in power? Will Russia come out on top?
Almost certainly the answers are No, No, Yes and the jury’s still out.
President Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin will stick with Assad for a host of reasons. They are good reasons from his viewpoint and bad reasons from the point of view of most of the rest of the world. But Putin is very much a “Russia First” man. And he is prepared to lie, cheat, steal, kill, and corrupt to pursue what he perceives as his country’s national interests and stay in power.
When it comes to human rights and political freedom, Putin has been exposed as a failure. When it comes to combatting corruption he is a dismal failure. And as for the economy, well, it is just resuming a fragile and shaky growth after a long contraction.
In one area, however, Putin is hugely successful: Foreign military adventures. His success in Crimea, Eastern Ukraine and Syria have delighted the patriotic-minded Russian people. His consistently high domestic approval ratings are the envy of other world leaders. Backing down in Syria will send those approval ratings plummeting and Putin—who faces elections next March—could lose his grip on power.
There are other good geostrategic reasons for backing Assad. For Russia, the road back to the top diplomatic table is through Damascus. It has already provided a key relationship with Iran; opened doors with Turkey and left it with a military base in the centre of the pivotal Middle East. With this military and political power comes influence and, eventually, economic benefits.
So will Putin drop his support for Assad? No, he can’t.
And the Trump Administration will not intervene in Syria. It will continue air strikes—maybe even launch special forces actions—every time a red line is crossed. Trump may even lay down a few more not-to-be-crossed red lines. But American boots on the ground are not on the cards.
And for good reasons. Trying to depose Assad is a quagmire far deeper and dangerous than Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq. It was not always so. Back in 2012, there was a window of opportunity for direct intervention by the West. That was before the Syrian opposition fragmented into hundreds of factions that spent as much time fighting each other as they did Assad. However, after Iraq and Afghanistan there was no public appetite for Western intervention.
By the time Obama drew his red line in August 2012 the window was rapidly closing. When the first chemical weapons were dropped in March 2013 it was closed and nailed shut. But it should be said that a surgical strike along the lines of the one ordered by Donald Trump would probably have deterred Putin from sending in his air force and the Iranians from sending in tens of thousands of ground troops.
The Russians and Iranians would have shied away from the danger of the Syrian civil war escalating from a proxy conflict to a shooting war with NATO troops on the other side. And, if Donald Trump is able to discover hidden reservoirs of common sense, he will shy away from direct intervention for the same good reason.
That is why Assad will stay in power. Russian and Iranian intervention has been a game changer in the Syrian civil war. Before Putin flew to the rescue, Assad’s regime was on the verge of collapse. Aleppo and most of Damascus had fallen to the rebel forces. Now Aleppo is back in the hands of the regime, as is most of Damascus, and the Russians have been organising peace talks—without the Americans.
Maintaining Assad in power was the reason the Russians entered the fray. Forcing his removal— no matter how great his crimes—would make a mockery of their involvement. So the West should stop insisting on his removal. It isn’t going to happen—at least not for some time—and continually demanding it just highlights its weakness and failures when the demands are ignored.
And finally, how will Russia emerge from this murky mess. Well, that is about as clear as the mess itself and it will probably depend on which side of the fence you sit and your definition of success. Moscow is clearly complicit in war crimes. Its planes bombed aid convoys in Aleppo and civilian populations. Moscow probably knew that Assad had retained chemical weapons even when he—and his Russian backers—had sworn that all stockpiles had been surrendered.
However, it is doubtful that Putin authorised or knew in advance about the latest chemical weapons attack. He is probably furious with Assad for putting him in an impossible diplomatic position. But Putin’s best bet is to continue to publicly lie on behalf of Assad.
If Putin’s primary aim is domestic support and victory in next year’s presidential elections then he is taking the right course. If his aim is to reassure European neighbours of his peaceful intentions then he is heading in the exact opposite of the necessary direction.
On the other hand, if Putin’s objective is to increase influence outside of the West then many will respect him even while distrusting and disliking the man. Of the 193 members of the UN, only a handful offer anything approximating a democratic form of government. They are run by strong personalities who are constantly on the lookout for bigger countries prepared to sacrifice their morals for political influence and financial gain. Putin has proved willing.
Tom Arms is editor of the email newsletter and website Lookaheadnews.com