Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry ahead of a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, December 15, 2015.
Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters

Lately, it seems as if Moscow has finally decided to listen to Washington when it comes to Syria. First, on March 15, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he would “withdraw” his forces from Syria, apparently in response to U.S. President Barack Obama’s lectures on staying out of the Syrian “quagmire.” Ten days later, while hosting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Moscow, Putin made a rare expression of praise for Obama’s “political leadership” on Syria. By the day’s end, Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced no fewer than five areas of supposed cooperation on Syria: Moscow and Washington would “enhance” and “reinforce” the February 27 cease-fire agreement by ending the use of “indiscriminate weapons,” expanding humanitarian access to Syria, compelling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to release political prisoners and detainees, establishing a framework for a political transition, and writing a draft constitution by August. Lavrov even spoke of the creation of a “transitory governing body” in Syria—an echo of the “transitional governing body” outlined in the Geneva Communiqué of 2012—Washington’s bottom line for a settlement in Syria.

But a deeper look reveals that Washington is moving closer to Moscow's position on Syria, including on drafting a constitution that would allow Assad to remain in power during a “transition.” And if Putin has his way—either at the negotiating table or on the battlefield—Assad will stay in power for years to come.

DRAWDOWN, NOT WITHDRAWAL

The Russian “withdrawal” from Syria is actually more of a drawdown or recalibration of forces. Moscow has, as of early April, withdrawn roughly half of its 36 combat planes from the Hmeimim air base outside the Syrian port city of Latakia. Russia’s advanced S-400 antiaircraft system remains in place in order to defend the base from attack and block the United States and Syria’s neighbors from establishing no-fly zones in Syria without Moscow’s permission. Moscow has deployed special forces to pinpoint future targets for Russian air strikes and moved helicopters to bases in eastern Homs.

Because Putin made his announcement to withdraw without consulting Assad, it appeared as if he were abandoning the Syrian leader. But Moscow is not parting ways with Assad. Rather, Putin is demonstrating frustration with Assad’s poor performance on the battlefield and at the negotiating table. Since Moscow’s air campaign began at the end of September 2015, Russian pilots have reportedly flown more than 9,000 sorties, a majority of which have been directed at non–Islamic State (ISIS) targets, such as the various opposition groups fighting Assad. Russian airpower saved the Assad regime from collapse—no small matter—and has played a vital role in the regime’s recapture of the central Syrian city of Palmyra from ISIS in late March, as well as areas in north Latakia and near Aleppo. In addition, Russian air strikes strengthened an offense by the People’s Protection Units, a Syrian Kurdish militia, to cut the Azaz Corridor—a strip of land between Azaz (north of Aleppo) and Kobani (to the west on the border with Turkey)—which is a vital lifeline for the Syrian opposition forces fighting in Aleppo.

A serviceman carries ammunition next to Sukhoi Su-25 jet fighters, March 12, 2015.
Eduard Korniyenko / Reuters

In rough overall terms, however, Moscow’s air campaign has helped the regime regain little more than 4,000 square miles, roughly five percent of Syrian territory and only a fraction of the territory ISIS held at its height. This leaves Assad in control of around a third of the country and 63 percent of the remaining population. At the time, Assad boasted that he would “reclaim every inch of territory” lost during the conflict, implying that Russia would come to his aid. But given the Syrian regime’s difficulty in retaking and holding territory, it meant that Moscow would face the prospect of a long-term military commitment if it wanted to see Assad retake the majority of the country. That is why Assad’s remark invited a sharp rebuke from Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, who stated that Russia had invested heavily in the crisis and that Moscow “would like Mr. Bashar al-Assad to take that into account.” The withdrawal may help that message sink in.

Moscow’s withdrawal is also intended to coerce Assad into cooperating during the peace talks. It has been frustrating for Moscow to see Assad invalidating parts of the peace talks brokered by Moscow and Washington last autumn, a process enshrined in UN Security Council Resolution 2254. For example, immediately after Moscow and Washington concluded the cease-fire agreement on February 22, Assad announced that he would hold parliamentary elections on April 13—in which his “National Unity” coalition suspiciously won by 80 percent of the vote—essentially poking a finger in the eye of the resolution, which stipulates that elections would take place only as part of a final settlement. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem also stated that Damascus would not discuss the future of the presidency, calling into question the regime’s willingness to go along with parts of the resolution concerning a transition and constitutional changes. In light of Assad’s intransigence, Putin’s announcement of the withdrawal, which happened immediately after the UN’s first meeting with Assad’s negotiating team, was not that surprising in retrospect.

MOSCOW DIVIDED

Beyond the intended message to Assad, the withdrawal also reflects a division within the Russian government on how to deal with its ally. Although foreign policy decisions ultimately come from Putin, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has, naturally, emphasized negotiations and the Ministry of Defense has advocated for stronger military intervention. Putin chose to start with negotiations. In June 2012, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the U.S. State Department brokered the Geneva Communiqué, which outlines a transition process through which Assad’s regime and various opposition groups would come together to form a “transitional governing body” that holds “full executive authority.” Getting the regime and opposition to the same table proved difficult, however, and so the Ministry of Foreign Affairs tapped an outside figure, Vitaly Naumkin of the Russian Academy of Sciences, an academic with extensive experience in dealing with the Assad regime and Western policy circles (and who is now Russia’s moderator at the Syrian peace talks in Geneva). Naumkin has also hosted talks designed to unite the regime with Syrian opposition figures who are acceptable to Moscow, such as Qadri Jamil and Randa Kassis. But two meetings between the opposition and the regime in early 2015 yielded few results, as the regime proved remarkably rigid, unwilling to meet the demands of opposition participants close to Moscow on confidence-building measures, most notably on the release of prisoners.

Then, last summer, as Russia’s intelligence agencies predicted a full collapse of the Assad regime, Putin moved the Ministry of Defense into the pilot’s seat to provide military support for the regime in order to battle ISIS and other extremists. In the year leading up to Russia’s intervention, the Ministry of Defense argued at the annual meeting it hosts, the Moscow Conference on International Security, that the Middle East uprisings were caused not by poor governance but by U.S.-sponsored “color revolutions,” which had also encouraged protest and regime change in Ukraine and elsewhere in Russia’s near abroad. Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov called on another academic figure, Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the Institute of the Middle East, to back up this theory. Satanovsky said the “problem was not the Arab Uprisings, but America’s response to those uprisings.” Therefore, for Moscow, the solution was not just to prop up the Assad regime but to help put it in an offensive position against all of its enemies.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia, March 23, 2016.
Kirill Kudryavtsev / Reuters

So unsurprisingly, when Russia intervened on September 30, Russian strikes targeted not just ISIS and the al-Nusra Front but the full spectrum of Assad’s opponents, including more moderate rebels supported by the United States. Meanwhile, to capitalize on the military intervention, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs opened negotiations in Vienna with the United States and, for the first time, with Iran. In just a little over a month, the negotiating group—which also included China, the UN, and a number of Arab and European countries—rebranded itself the International Syria Support Group. It also passed UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

Unfortunately for Moscow, the Assad regime’s achievements on the battlefield lagged behind Moscow’s diplomatic successes. Owing to severe manpower shortages, Assad’s forces had a difficult time capitalizing on the Russian air campaign, leading to estimates in early December that the regime had recaptured only one percent of Syrian territory. To reverse the regime’s fortunes, Moscow dramatically escalated its attacks in January and February to 200 sorties a day. This scorched-earth attack finally gave the Assad regime enough momentum to retake areas of Aleppo, north Latakia, and other key points in the country’s south, but the gains amounted to only four percent more territory. With two-thirds of Syria still outside Assad’s control, it is thus not surprising that Putin chose to continue with the diplomatic track.

RHETORIC VERSUS REAL CHANGE

So far, the withdrawal has not seemed to have put enough pressure on Assad to make him listen to Putin. At the beginning of April, there were indications that Assad was at least rhetorically softening his position. In an interview with Russia’s Sputnik News, Assad backpedaled on Moallem’s earlier statements that the presidency was nonnegotiable. Assad proposed a new draft constitution, although he followed through with the April 13 parliamentary elections, which Assad claimed would “show the size of political forces in the country” in spite of being organized by the regime. Assad said that after the election, he would consider early presidential elections, but only “if there is popular will.” As for a political transition, which both the opposition and the United States have pushed for, Assad apparently interpreted it to mean “moving from one constitution to another” and not a change in leadership. At peace talks this week, Syria’s chief negotiator, Bashar Ja’afari, reiterated that Assad’s future was “not up for discussion.”

At the talks, which began in Geneva on April 13, the opposition delegation suspended its participation on April 18 because of regime cease-fire violations. That is why the big question is if Assad’s rhetoric—whether about a transition, a new constitution, or presidential elections—will be enough to bring a meaningful portion of the opposition to the negotiating table and keep it there. The cease-fire agreement forged by Moscow and Washington has given some of the nonextremist opposition a reprieve from Russian and regime air strikes, but in early April, the number of cease-fire violations increased dramatically. The regime bombarded a number of opposition areas throughout the country, and in return, some of the opposition, together with the al-Nusra Front, shot down a regime aircraft. Many suspect that the cease-fire is merely a tactical pause before Russia, together with Iran, launches a campaign to double down on securing Aleppo. In recent days, “green berets” from Iran, which opposes any discussion of a transition in Syria, have been spotted south of Aleppo.

For the United States, the question is how much to invest in this process. Early signs indicate keen interest. Bloomberg News reported last week that during their meeting in Moscow, Putin handed Kerry a draft constitution “which [was] based on documents by legal experts close to the [Syrian] government.” The Arabic daily Al-Hayat reported that Robert Malley, senior adviser for the U.S. Counter-ISIL Campaign in Iraq and Syria, was in Geneva last week to negotiate on the constitution, which would see Assad remain in power, possibly with three “vice presidents.”

But the realities of the battlefield and negotiations have weighed heavily on the process. The cease-fire agreement is buckling. Moscow has failed so far to convince Assad to allow humanitarian access to hundreds of thousands under siege throughout the country—perhaps the most urgent of Putin and Kerry’s points of agreement in Moscow. In the long term, there is the question of how to get a “transition” process in which Assad plays a central role—an oxymoron even in the Middle East—since it will likely alienate the opposition or hinder opposition groups from forgoing their passive reliance on radicals such as the al-Nusra Front, which has carried out suicide bombing missions that have proven key to battling Assad. The Assad regime now appears to be triangulating between Russia and Iran, the newest player at the diplomatic table, which does not support a transition in Syria without Assad.

At the beginning of the Syrian uprising, the idea of “inclusiveness” was thrown around to satisfy the opposition’s demands for democracy and “dignity.” Today it is key to getting enough of the opposition to join a “new” Syrian system that can attract enough popular support and muster enough manpower to retake Syrian territory from Sunni extremists such as ISIS and the al-Nusra Front—and without having to rely on Shiite extremists such as Hezbollah and Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas, which are currently fighting on behalf of the Assad regime. If Washington fails to find an effective compromise, Syria is destined to either break up or devolve into an unstable federal or confederate system that is likely to involve extensive international involvement for years to come.

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  • ANDREW J. TABLER is Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the author of In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria.
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