Monday, June 24, 2013

Russia may lose its strong Syria card

The political isolation of President Vladimir Putin at the G-8 summit in Ireland was a noteworthy moment in the Syrian crisis. With the Obama administration planning to arm the rebels, Putin could begin paying a heavier political price for his stance on Syria, and may find himself in a harmful proxy war against the United States before long.

Putin got his way in the final G-8 statement. No mention was made of President Bashar Assad’s departure. However, that was only one side of the story amid the growing insistence of the U.S. and the Europeans that any solution in Syria must necessarily include Assad’s exit. When Putin was told that seven members of the G-8 might release the statement without Russia signing on to it, the president became more flexible, leading to the compromise draft.

Putin had a very different interpretation of what happened. He denied that Russia was isolated, pointed out that several G-8 members had doubts about the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces, and said that Russia might send more weapons to Syria’s “legal government.” Putin could also defend himself by affirming that he withstood the pressure of his partners. And in criticizing the American and European decision to arm the rebels, he played on Western fears. “Is it to these people that the Europeans want to supply arms? What happens next with those weapons? Who will control in which hands they end up? They could possibly [end up] in Europe,” he wondered.

Putin’s remarks notwithstanding, Russia is finding that its options in Syria are narrowing. Barring an outright military victory by the regime, Moscow will eventually have to sign on to some sort of political solution that has a chance of working. Just holding on to Assad could turn into foolhardy obstructionism, when a willingness to endorse and lead a transition away from the Syrian leader may pay valuable political dividends. Barring this, Putin risks making the same error that the Assads frequently made, namely holding on to strong political cards for too long, after their value has dissipated.

With the Obama administration entering the fray, a decisive victory by the Assad regime seems less probable. The Americans, for all their ambiguities, have apparently determined that Iran, Hezbollah and even Russia, must not triumph in Syria, as this would represent a strategic setback to the United States and its Arab allies. That means we may see Washington gradually providing the rebels with whatever they need to stand their ground, regardless of the risks.

These dynamics would greatly exacerbate U.S.-Russian tensions. Neither Putin nor President Barack Obama wants this to happen, and yet the logic of the situation makes such an outcome almost inevitable.

For Putin, a confrontation with the U.S. and the other members of the G-8 over Syria is not desirable if the purpose is merely to keep Bashar Assad in place. Ultimately, Putin knows that Russia would be given a wide berth in Syria by the West if it were to define and participate in a credible political solution. But Russia has not proposed such a solution, even as it has helped Assad to impose a military solution.

That maneuver appears to have faltered now that Washington has shifted its position on assisting the rebels, and has realized that the Geneva II conference might be used to anchor Assad in place if the Syrian leader makes territorial gains beforehand. The fall of Qusair brought this home to the Obama administration. Hezbollah’s participation won Assad a victory, but a pyrrhic one: It precipitated U.S. involvement, making Syria’s war much more complicated.

Putin is constrained on another side. He realizes that Russia’s margin of maneuver is relatively limited, because if Assad is unhappy with any new Russian attitude, he can always lean toward Iran, which has been steadfast in keeping the Syrian president in office. So, Putin could face deteriorating relations with the U.S. and Europe on behalf of a policy that largely benefits Assad and Iran. Until now Russia has agreed with both, but as the U.S. and the Europeans become more assertive over Syria, Putin must determine whether Assad is still worth the fight. Then again, Iran, for reasons unrelated to Syria, may hesitate before breaking with Moscow just for Assad’s sake.

A political solution in Syria is the most desirable for all concerned. Putin appears to have miscalculated when assuming that the Americans could be persuaded to accept Assad’s continuation in office. If so, this obliges the Russian president to rethink his position. No political outcome seems possible if Assad stays in power, even if he is allowed to remain until his term ends. At the same time a military solution is doubtful. So unless Russia offers a workable transitional plan for Syria, we are heading into a period of prolonged stalemate.

Simply acting tough is a game with relatively limited benefits for Putin. The political context is changing, and Syria’s neighbors are at risk of collapsing into civil war. The need to define a political endgame is increasingly urgent. Perhaps the Russian president sees this as leverage that will bring all others to his side. But the G-8 conference exposed a very different mood, with even the most aloof of American presidents now agreeing that Assad must step down.

Putin doesn’t want to lose Syria, as Russia “lost” Kosovo, Iraq and Libya during the last 15 years. But unless Russia and the U.S. can collaborate to find a mutually realizable arrangement, and then bring their partners into it, Russia’s isolation will only increase and the substantial political capital it has garnered in Syria will dissipate.

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