Putin’s Plan for Syria

How Russia Wants to End the War

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at Syria's Khmeimim air force base, December 2017. Sputnik Photo Agency / Reuters

After nearly seven years, the Syrian civil war is finally winding down, and the Middle East’s various powers are looking ahead to what comes next. On November 22, the leaders of Iran, Russia, and Turkey met in the Russian resort town of Sochi to discuss Syria’s future, and on November 28, the latest round of UN-sponsored talks between representatives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition began in Geneva. Another round of talks in Sochi is planned for early next year.

Through military intervention and diplomatic maneuvering, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made his country into one of the major players in the Syrian conflict. Russia went into Syria in September 2015 to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) and to block an attempt at regime change by outside powers such as the United States and Saudi Arabia. More than two years later, Moscow’s military engagement has paid off. Assad’s regime has survived and ISIS has been defeated. The war is still not over, but the focus is increasingly on a future political settlement. Russia will not be able to impose this settlement alone, or even together with its allies, Iran and Turkey. But it will be as involved in the Syrian peace as it was involved in the Syrian war.


Among the issues now at play in Syria, the fate of Assad stands out. During the war, Moscow saw him as someone to be bailed out for the sake of preventing chaos. Now he looks and behaves like a victor, and may be thinking that he does not need the Russians as much as he used to. Assad looks down on the opposition and wants his Baath Party to become dominant again. The Kremlin, however, understands that restoring his control over all of Syria is impossible and even undesirable, since other groups, from the Sunni opposition to the Kurds, adamantly reject this outcome. Assad may stay in power in Damascus, but the country’s political landscape has changed irreversibly.

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