Moscow is starting to flesh out ideas for the next phase of its involvement in the Syrian conflict. Harboring no illusions about the feasibility of a military victory in Syria, it now wants to put itself at the center of a political process.

The chief goal of the first phase of Russia’s military intervention has been almost achieved: to weaken opposition groups in Syria and bolster the position of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces through air strikes. However, the necessary second phase is all about politics and diplomacy. Moscow saw the relatively productive multilateral talks in Vienna on October 30 as a good start to this effort. 

In the month since Russia first launched its air strikes, Assad’s forces and his Iranian allies have been able to stabilize their front lines and make a few territorial advances—but no more than that. Still, it seems unlikely that Moscow is willing to invest the sizeable military resources that would be required to tip the scales decisively in Damascus’s favor. 

A protracted military operation could be very damaging for Russia. There are potential military losses and economic costs to be considered (the costs of the current operation, estimated at upwards of 1 billion dollars per year, appear manageable). There is also the threat that Russian public opinion on the intervention could cool, although so far the Russian elite is united in support of it. 

There are additionally political risks for Russia’s position in the Middle East. Thus far, Moscow has not been severely criticized in the region itself. Parts of the Syrian opposition have cautiously said they are open to dialogue with Moscow. Members of the Gulf Cooperation Council are currently more inclined to criticize Washington for an ineffective policy that led to Moscow’s intervention, than to criticize Russia itself.

But if the current military situation drags on, it will get harder for the Kremlin to justify its intervention, which is why it welcomed the opportunity provided by the Vienna talks. 

To understand why, it’s important to understand the factors behind President Putin’s decision to intervene militarily. By September 2015, on the eve of Russia’s dramatic military moves, the Kremlin was fearing that Assad’s regime was on the verge of collapse. The assessment was that the existing levels of military, technological, and financial assistance by Russia to the Syrian regime would only prolong its agony and not save it. Intervention was based on a choice between a “bad” and a “very bad” scenario: either a costly military operation to support Assad, or doing nothing as his power crumbled.

The Russian leadership was motivated in part by its perception of what had happened in Libya and Iraq, where—in its view—nothing good came of the complete destruction of the old regimes. It did not want to see the same happen to Syria. 

Moscow was pleased that the final communiqué in Vienna supported many long-standing Russian positions. It restated international support for Syria’s territorial integrity, a continuing secular government there, the need to protect the country’s remaining state institutions, and a refusal to negotiate with ISIS, as well as called for a continuing fight against any other groups in Syria listed by the UN as terrorist organizations.
The latest UN-sponsored talks in Vienna involved a wider-than-ever range of parties, including Iran. They have now committed themselves to meeting more often. But there is still very little agreement on some key questions. 

The first and most contentious issue is the fate of Bashar al-Assad. Western countries want a timetable for him to leave and his regional adversaries want him to quit immediately, while Russia and Iran are reluctant to set a timeframe for his departure—or to see him depart at all. 

On November 3, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova said that preserving Assad in power was not a matter of principle for Moscow, and that it was up to the Syrian people to decide whether he should leave. 

Zakharova may be stretching the truth here. The Russian leadership believes that, in the course of the civil war, Assad has become deeply entrenched, relying on a network of people personally loyal to him, and that his removal any time soon might therefore lead to the collapse of the whole government system. As a result, the Kremlin is very cautious in its statements on whether Assad can be replaced. 

Second, there is disagreement as to what constitutes a “terrorist organization” in Syria—and who therefore is a legitimate target for air strikes. Part of the problem is the near-complete lack of trust between Moscow and Western governments active in the anti-ISIS coalition. Russian officials from Putin on down state that they would like help coming up with a precise list of groups that don’t fall into this category.  For their part, members of the U.S.-led coalition are adamantly opposed to information-sharing for fear that it could be used to target Assad’s many opponents. 

Third, it remains unclear how negotiations between the Syrian regime and the opposition can be organized. On the one hand, Moscow and Tehran will have to work on Bashar al-Assad, who is well known for his obstinacy and political inflexibility. On the other hand, the standard Russian line is that it’s not obvious who Assad will need to negotiate with. The Syrian opposition is fragmented and it will take a lot of effort to form a group that can be a viable negotiating partner. 

Russia’s invitation to Assad to visit Moscow on October 20 appears to have had two goals. While discussing the strategic parameters of military cooperation between Moscow and Damascus, Putin also wanted to check whether Assad would agree to stick to Moscow’s plan for a political settlement. That would involve the gradual transformation of the Syrian regime by making it more inclusive, something that Assad might be inclined to reject. 

Finally, there is still great distrust between the different players at the table. The continuing deep hostility towards Iran by leading Gulf Cooperation Council members makes it almost impossible for them to agree on Syria. 

This is also, of course, a time of great tension between Russia and the West (although U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have seemed to find a common language as of late).  And one should not overlook perennial mistrust between Iranian and Russian leaders, as illustrated by the rather remarkable comment on November 3 by Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, that Russia “may not care if Assad stays in power as we do.”

The U.S. and Russian military elites now see each other in extremely hostile terms and there is no appetite for working jointly. Besides, Moscow has been using the situation in Syria to wage a propaganda battle against U.S. policy. This is not a conducive atmosphere for constructive dialogue over Syria.
Under these circumstances, the Vienna meeting was surprisingly harmonious—but the process will get more arduous from here. 

  • Nikolay Kozhanov