US insistence Assad must relinquish power before any negotiations can start has hardened Russian support for him
This post first appeared on Russia Insider
President Assad’s visit to Moscow is his first publicly announced foreign trip since the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011.
It is a sign of the extent to which Moscow’s attitudes over the course of that crisis have changed.
Moscow has always opposed the US’s regime change agenda in Syria. However in 2011 Moscow was also publicly critical of President Assad, and put pressure on him to negotiate with his opponents.
To those who say that this stance reflected the fact that in 2011 Dmitry Medvedev was Russia’s President, I would point out that it continued unchanged in 2012 after Putin’s election.
Today Moscow still calls on President Assad to negotiate with his opponents - something he has always said he is prepared to do - but the criticism of him in Moscow has stopped. Today Moscow speaks of him instead as the “heroic leader” of his country, defending Syria from terrorism.
What this demonstrates is the extent to which due to their uncompromising - even fanatical - insistence that Assad must go before any negotiations can begin, the US and the Syrian opposition have simply ended up simply firming up Russian support for him.
The result is that where in 2012 the Russians would have supported a negotiated and managed transition to a post-Assad government, they are now straightforwardly backing Assad. Moreover they are doing so with bombs and aircraft.
With the Iranians also backing Assad, it is now very difficult to see how he can be overthrown. The very fact that he was prepared to leave Damascus to go to Moscow is a sign of how secure he has now become.
US policy has therefore achieved the diametric opposite of its objective.
This is a poor result by any standard, and shows how a game played for all or nothing runs the risk of ending up with nothing.
There continues to be much confusion about what Russia’s objectives in Syria are.
This is strange because Putin has spelled them out quite clearly. They are the destruction of the Islamic State and the uprooting of violent jihadism from Syria.
Nothing has so far happened to make the Russians change that objective. As has been said by many, the Russian military operation in Syria is in Russian terms very small, even if in Syrian terms it is decisive. The Russians can easily afford to keep it going indefinitely, until their objective is achieved, and nothing has so far happened that would cause them not to do so.
The Russians have ruled out sending a ground force. The fact that they have however committed themselves to achieving their objective with the force they have deployed shows that they think that the force is adequate and that their objective is achievable. Reports the Syrian army is successfully advancing around Aleppo - almost certainly with Iranian help - suggests they are right.
Recent steps by the Iraqi parliament to discuss a request to Russia for air support, may mean that the Russian air force will soon be action in Iraq as well. Should that happen then the Islamic State will be facing a Russian air campaign across the whole extent of its territory.
It should go without saying that the Russians can more than match any escalation the US and its allies engage in on the ground - for example by supplying the rebels with anti tank or anti aircraft missiles.
Given that this is so, the West needs to start preparing itself for the likely probability the rebel movement will be completely defeated leaving President Assad once more in full control of all of Syria’s territory.
If that happens it will be, as I said, because of the US’s refusal to negotiate with him when it had the chance.
Since the Russians are now directly engaged in Syria it is they who will now - together with the Iranians - be drawing up the military and diplomatic plans from now on.
It is striking that the pictures of Putin’s meeting with President Assad show both Foreign Minister Lavrov and Defence Minister Shoigu present, but no Syrian officials other than Assad himself present.
That explains the purpose of the meeting.
It shows the Russian leadership’s collective support for President Assad.
It also gives the Russian leadership an opportunity to meet with - and assess - President Assad face-to-face.
Lastly, it enables the Russian leadership to tell Assad in person what they - and he - are going to do. The fact that both Lavrov and Shoigu are there confirms the Russians are explaining to Assad both the diplomatic and the military strategy.
It is likely that some sort of peace initiative involving a further outreach to the US and the Syrian opposition - with a further offer of talks - is in the works and will be made over the next few days. If so it will be interesting to see what its terms are and how the US responds.
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