The Russian quagmire in Syria and other Washington fairy tales

Michael Kofman writes: Assad is not necessarily winning in Syria. The Russian-led coalition, together with Iran, Hezbollah, and what’s left of the Syrian army, is winning. That is a distinction with an important political difference for Assad to play out at the end of this conflict. While Saudi Arabia and Iran have intractable positions on Assad’s fate, Russia seems much more open-minded on alternative futures, though it will not condone regime change by discussing his removal publicly. It is difficult to see how Russian leaders could count on Syria being stable in the long term under his leadership. They’ve made a much larger political and military stake in the country, and Assad does not look like the man to keep it secure in the long term. Some are certain that Russia will never give up Assad, but who has a good track record in predicting events in the Middle East?

The Geneva negotiations are not just a ploy; Russia needs that settlement eventually in any scenario. It is simple battlefield reality. The more territory the Russian-led coalition regains, the more a political settlement is a necessity. If Assad’s forces could not hold the rapidly dwindling piece of Syria they had left in 2015 how can they defend much larger real estate, together with major cities? The answer is they can’t. We can see how the Assad regime might retake Aleppo, but what’s the plan for holding it along with other cities for the next decade or so? Gaining terrain is one thing, keeping it is another. Assad said he plans to retake the whole country — a dictator can dream. Russia started the negotiations precisely to avoid retracing America’s steps in Iraq and Afghanistan, where military victory is day one of the quagmire to come. Certainly Russian leaders remember the Soviet Union’s own fruitless struggle in Afghanistan. Political settlement is the only way for Russia to lock in any gains in Syria.

If this is so, then why have the Geneva talks been suspended through February, while Russia keeps bombing? The short answer is that the Russian-led coalition is not done capturing the territory they feel must be regained, especially the city of Aleppo, and as a result have no intention of giving rebel groups a respite. Russia’s intervention forced them to the table, but they are not weak enough and some of them Moscow does not want to see in Geneva at all. Aleppo is a hulking ruin, but its fall would be a colossal symbolic defeat. It could split the rebel groups Saudi Arabia worked hard to unite in Riyadh. Russia is pressing its advantage, hoping to secure the major cities for the Syria regime, while leaving the ISIL-held eastern part of the country as an “American problem.” [Continue reading…]

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