February 8, 2017

Diplomatic activism by Russia in Syria is producing speculation about the Kremlin’s possible willingness to encourage genuine peace talks and spur transition from corrupt, incompetent and brutal family rule toward something stabilizing and inclusive. If Russia proves genuinely interested in converting military success to a sustainable political settlement, it would put Moscow sharply at odds with Iran and with the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Is Russian President Vladimir Putin truly prepared to turn a page in Syria? The litmus test will be Moscow’s view of whether or not Assad rule should be restored to areas eventually liberated from the Islamic State group..
Russian air power and Iranian-led Shia foreign fighters saved Assad from military defeat. Intervening militarily in Syria allowed Putin to tell his countrymen that Russia was back as a great power; that Russia had thwarted a purported American regime-change campaign in Syria. Iran, on the other hand, has supported Assad because Assad alone, in a nationalistic Syria, is willing to be Iran’s servant on all matters having to do with Lebanon’s Hezbollah: the terrorist long arm of Iranian penetration into the Arab world.
Having saved Assad and all but declared military victory, Russia may be asking itself now if Assad is a liability for its longer-term interests in Syria. It would be an apt question.
The Kremlin is aware of the regime’s shortcomings. Russia knows that a stable Syria — a place where it would be possible to have secure military bases and a strong, beneficial trade and defense relationship — is unattainable with Assad at the helm. When it comes to reconciliation and reconstruction, the name “Assad” is pure poison in Syria and far beyond. The Syrian equivalent of North Korea headed by a mass murderer may not be something Russia seeks as a long-term client.