MOSCOW – Russia is sending signals to the U.S. and Saudi Arabia that it may allow Syria’s embattled leader, Bashar Assad, to be eased out of power as it seeks to forge a united front against Islamic State and retain influence in the region, officials and Syrian opposition leaders said.
Officials from the three countries, as well as from the opposition, have been negotiating possible terms for sidelining Assad since at least June, when President Vladimir Putin hosted Saudi King Salman’s son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed, they said. Saudi Arabia is Assad’s main regional enemy, while Russia is his longtime ally. Since then, Russia’s whirlwind diplomacy has brought key officials from across the region to Moscow for talks.
Syria’s civil war has traumatized the Middle East, spilling into neighbors and enabling the rise of Islamic State amid the turmoil. The latest Russian-backed efforts to end the conflict come as its fallout spreads westward, with hundreds of thousands of migrants seeking refuge in the European Union.
Like every other aspect of the war in Syria, though, Russia’s policy isn’t straightforward. U.S. and Russian officials say they’re weighing a transition plan that would strip Assad of power while remaining interim head of state.
“There’s a convergence on the threat of ISIS,” Paul Salem, vice president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, said by phone, using an acronym for Islamic State. “This convergence wasn’t there when they last tried diplomacy two years ago.”
Yet at the same time, Russia is ramping up military aid to Syria, home to its only naval base outside the former Soviet Union. Big questions remain, the U.S. official stressed, including whether Putin really is prepared to see Assad marginalized and, if so, whether he can persuade him to go quietly.
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia is set to start flying combat missions from a new air hub inside Syria, other American officials said. Putin may be betting that an increased military presence will either help Assad stay in power or give Russia more sway in influencing the outcome of the crisis if the Syrian leader is forced out.
Islamic State controls as much as half of the country, while rebel militias backed by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar are gaining ground, leaving only about a fifth under the government’s firm control, according to Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli defense official. That area is home to most of the population, though, including key urban centers such as the capital, Damascus.
If Putin continues to escalate his support for Assad, the Saudis, who are suspicious of the Russian leader’s intentions, will respond by stepping up their aid to the rebels, according to Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi commentator and former government adviser.
“The fact that the Russians are sending servicemen to Syria now proves that it’s not diplomacy, it’s war,” he said.
Publicly, Russia remains far apart from the U.S. and its allies on Syria. Asked if Russia would accept Assad staying on in a purely ceremonial role, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that “only the Syrian people can decide the fate of Syria, not some outside countries.”
If the gap is narrowing behind the scenes, it may largely be due to Islamic State. Putin came to power fighting Islamist separatists in the Caucasus, and has reason to fear the rise of jihadis in Syria. Their numbers include about 1,000 Russian- speakers, Elena Suponina, a Moscow-based Mideast expert, has estimated, raising the threat of attacks inside Russia.
Putin is more interested in defeating Islamic State and retaining influence in the Middle East than he is in propping up an increasingly weak ally, according to the Soufan Group, a U.S. security consultancy run by a former counter-terrorism official at the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The U.S.-Russian overlap may help shape a new road map put forward by the U.N.’s special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura. It calls for reducing Assad’s role to “protocol” only, London- based Al-Hayat newspaper reported Sept. 1.
The U.N. envoy is assembling working groups of Syrian government and opposition figures for a process dubbed Geneva 3, after two inconclusive rounds of talks in the Swiss city.
“The contours of a deal should be ready by year-end,” said Qadri Jamil, a Kurdish politician and former Syrian deputy premier who now lives in Moscow.
Hassan Abdel Aziz, an Assad opponent who flew to Moscow from Damascus for talks, said there’s broad agreement that senior posts in the transitional government will be split evenly between current officials and the opposition, though die-hard Assad loyalists will be excluded.
Putin said last week that Assad agreed to hold early parliamentary elections and invite “healthy” opposition groups into his government. The Russian leader may flesh out his plan when he addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York later this month, according to Peskov.
Other countries will also need to be brought on board if Russia and the U.S. can find common ground. Saudi Arabia may accept Assad staying on as a powerless figurehead but only during the transition, said Haytham Manna, a Paris-based opposition leader who met with officials in Moscow last month.
Iran, Assad’s other main ally, will be forced to fall in line if Putin does “wash his hands” of Assad, said Mustafa Alani, the Dubai-based director of national security and terrorism studies at the Gulf Research Center. Iran depends on the Kremlin diplomatically, particularly after Russia helped broker July’s historic nuclear accord, Alani said.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, which also negotiated the Iran deal and is the top destination for Syrian refugees, said Saturday that “there’ll be no resolution” to the conflict without cooperation from Russia and the U.S.
While the former Cold War foes have different priorities in Syria, they haven’t always been at loggerheads. Putin averted U.S. airstrikes on Syria in 2013 by convincing Assad to hand over his chemical weapons. In March, Secretary of State John Kerry gestured toward the Russian position when he said the U.S. and its allies would have to negotiate with Assad.
But the signs that Putin is hedging its bets are still ringing alarm bells in Washington. Russia’s naval facility is just down the coast from the Assad family’s heartland, Latakia, which has seen an influx of Russian material and advisers in recent weeks. Two Russian planes carrying 80 tons of humanitarian aid arrived in Latakia on Saturday, Syria’s official Sana news agency said.
President Barack Obama said Russia’s deepening involvement will make it harder to dislodge Assad and find a political solution to the war.
“The strategy they’re pursuing now, doubling down on Assad, I think is a big mistake,” Obama told military personnel at Fort Meade, Maryland, on Friday.
Russia insists its personnel are only in Syria to help government troops operate the weapons being supplied, though it doesn’t rule out taking unspecified “additional measures” as required.
“The Russians are laying the groundwork for some kind of transition,” said Theodore Karasik, a U.A.E-based geopolitical analyst. “It’s just not going to match what the U.S. envisions.”