Joseph Bahout writes: it would be premature to assume that there is a grand design behind Russia’s Syrian intervention. It is more realistic to envision what Putin has in mind as a series of incremental endgames, a succession of contingency plans, and a cascade of defense lines, in a Russian nesting doll fashion, that are adaptable and playable as events unfold on the ground and on the diplomatic battlefield.
The first and most highly valued of these objectives would be the restoration, to the greatest extent possible, of the central Syrian state such as it existed before 2011. Putin bets on a revamping of the Syrian army, which relies on cadres trained (and sometimes married) in Russia or the ex-Soviet bloc. This objective does not exclude a whitewashing of the regime’s façade through early elections, the formation of a “national unity government,” and cosmetic revisions of the president’s prerogatives. That is probably what Putin discussed with Assad during his recent and very odd visit to the Kremlin.
If this proves impossible or too costly, a second option is to fall back to the defensible parts of useful Syria after guaranteeing the safety of the Alawi canton. This is perhaps already a consideration, as the majority of Russian airstrikes concentrate on the contours of this area. From there on, Putin, like in Ukraine and Crimea, could freeze the conflict and embark on a long war of attrition. The rest of Syria would fragment and fall into chaos. The central desert would be left for the West and the Gulf States to sort out, fought over by various rebel groups and the Islamic State, which would prosper in such a scenario. Russia’s expectation is that its rivals would ultimately be exhausted and come back to Putin begging for a solution—the one that he always had in mind.
The last contingency scenario is to seek to make the second option quasi-permanent. Useful Syria would be solidified as an enclave into which minorities would progressively flow, seeking protection or shelter from the chaotic rest of the country. This would become the launching pad of a negotiated long-term solution that would consolidate the partition of Syria, granting Moscow influence over a statelet on the coast, where its military bases lie. While the economic viability of such a region would be uncertain, it could potentially be ensured by the exploration and exploitation of undersea gas fields. [Continue reading…]