Putin will not let Assad fall

Vali Nasr writes: In the four years of civil war, the United States has rebuffed calls to arm the rebels, establish a no fly zone or enforce its own red lines for use of chemical weapons. America’s impact on the civil war has been minimal. Russia, by contrast, has armed Assad’s military and now taken charge of defending the regime. It is clear to all stakeholders that the key to the resolution of the war is Moscow.

Washington’s ability to get regional actors to compromise on Syria is also hampered by domestic considerations. The political environments in both the United States and Iran preclude serious talks over regional issues, let alone the meaningful give and take that would make diplomacy possible. Iran’s Supreme Leader has said that for now talks with the United States will go no further than the nuclear deal, and the Obama administration speaks of containment rather than engagement when it comes to Iran’s regional role. The implementation of the nuclear deal will cast a shadow on all discussions over Syria, and even if Washington were to manage a breakthrough with Tehran, it is bound to face opposition from Israel, Persian Gulf monarchies and Congress.

Moscow is better situated to move Iran, Turkey and the Persian Gulf monarchies toward compromise. Secretary Kerry brought Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel Jubair together last month in Qatar to discuss Syria. But Russia has been pursuing more direct bilateral talks. The list of dignitaries who have visited Moscow in recent months is long: Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, Revolutionary Guards’ Qods Force Commander Qasim Suleimani, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, UAE’s Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Zayed, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan. After Muhammad Bin Salman returned from Moscow, Putin arranged for him to meet Assad’s intelligence chief, Ali Mamluk, in Jeddah. As Putin has ramped up his defense of Assad, Russia has been speaking to the biggest regional actors.

This diplomatic outreach has already had tangible effects. Just last week, after visiting Moscow, Erdogan changed his position and accepted that Assad could be part of a political solution to end the civil war. It must be clear to Erdogan and the Persian Gulf monarchies that Putin will not let Assad fall. These nations also run the risk of confrontation with Russia if they continue supporting anti-Assad forces. Nor do Turkey and Israel want to see prolonged Russian military presence next door. Israel would not be able to hit at Hezbollah and Iranian targets at will, and Turkey wouldn’t be able to react to the Kurdish challenge as freely it has thus far. The best course of action, these states could conclude, is to agree to a diplomatic solution that would send Russian forces home. [Continue reading…]

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