On October 20, Bashar al-Assad quietly slipped out of Syria for the first time since his country's civil war had begun, four years and a quarter million lives earlier, and flew to Moscow for an awkward, and by all accounts chilly, meeting with Vladimir Putin.
Assad, lanky and shy, stood awkwardly over the shorter, gregarious Putin for photos at the Kremlin, released only after Assad had safely returned home.
To Americans, it might have looked like two allies conspiring, a decades-old alliance suddenly growing closer. Putin, just weeks earlier, had deployed Russian jets and helicopters to Syria to fight alongside Assad's forces and bomb US-backed rebels. Surely, it appeared, the two leaders were consecrating their new partnership.
It turned out to be anything but. A few weeks later, according to a new Financial Times report, the Kremlin sent a high-level emissary, military intelligence chief Igor Sergun, to Damascus to deliver a message: Moscow had decided it was time for Assad to step down.
Assad refused. In the weeks since, Russia has responded not by punishing Assad, but rather by accelerating its air campaign in Syria on his behalf, apparently resigned to its open-ended and increasingly costly intervention in support of an ally who defies Russian wishes and acts counter to Russian interests.
It is a reminder of a fact that many Americans often miss: Putin has little control over Syria and only minimal influence, despite his military and political investments in the war's outcome. That is far from a case for celebration but rather, impossible as it may seem, deepens the hopelessness around this war that not even Russia can win the one thing that would be likeliest to end it: the peaceful and negotiated departure of Assad.
Why Russia would want Assad to go
There had been hints for years that Russia was quietly scouting potential replacements for Assad, whose heavy-handed response to 2011 protests had sent his country careening into a civil war that endangers Russian interests. Moscow was at risk of seeing one of its few remaining allies implode. And it was, and still is, facing the threat of Russian jihadists fighting in the war and returning home to cause trouble in Chechnya or more widely.
In September of 2012, Russia's deputy foreign minister met in Paris with Abdelaziz al-Khair, a prominent Alawite and a member of Syria's tolerated opposition. He urged al-Khair to fly to Beijing for an official meeting with Chinese officials to discuss Syrian peace talks, and said Russia backed the discussions.
"It seemed clear to everyone they were checking him out as a potential Alawite replacement to the current regime," Syria expert Joshua Landis told the FT. When al-Khair's plane landed back in Damascus, he was mobbed by state security and dragged off to prison.
A New York Times story on Putin's troubled relationship with Assad quoted an unnamed Syria-based diplomat putting it well: "Putin’s influence over Assad is like Obama’s over Netanyahu." That is to say, there's not a lot of it.
Moscow is clearly unhappy. The FT story quotes a "Russian authority on Syria who is involved in Moscow’s diplomacy" as saying, "Ever since President Assad was flown in to be received by our president last year, his attitude has been less that satisfactory, and this does interfere with our efforts towards a political solution."
In Washington, there is an oddly persistent view that Moscow would never abandon Assad, because Russia is untrustworthy. But even if you take the most cynical view possible of Russian foreign policy — not necessarily a bad idea — it makes more sense all the time that removing Assad would better serve Russian interests than keeping him.
Russia is not involved in Syria out of some abstract commitment to its buddy Bashar, but rather to protect its interests: a Syrian government that is pro-Moscow and that will allow Russia to keep its last remaining military bases outside of the former Soviet sphere. Russia has long-held links to the Syrian military establishment as well.
Moscow can theoretically preserve all of this even if Assad goes. If anything, Russia might be better served by installing a new leader who would be indebted to Moscow and thus more pliant than Assad.
Perhaps driving all this was Russia's fear that Assad's regime, four years into the civil war and having lost control of most of Syria, was on the verge of a catastrophic implosion. That would have left Russia with nothing, it's the fear that led Putin to intervene in the first, and that same fear would seem to make it within Russia's interests to replace Assad with a new leader who could bring a peace deal.
Putin might have no plan B for Syria
Moscow's plan A seems to have been this: Bomb Syrian rebels so as to stabilize the Assad regime, ease out Assad himself, set up a transitional Syrian government, and eventually walk away having secured some tenuous peace for Syria while retaining Russian interests there.
Plan A is currently failing. Assad is still in power, both he and his regime appear hostile to peace talks, rebels are unwilling to accept a peace deal in which Assad remains in power, and Moscow clearly has no ability to compel Assad.
Yet Russia still launching airstrikes on Assad's behalf, and those strikes appear to have succeeded in stabilizing the regime's hold on its slice of territory. It's still investing its military and political resources, neither of which it has in great abundance at the moment, in a Syria project for which there is no obvious resolution that will serve Russian interests.
So what's going on? I see two possibilities.
A first possibility is that Russia has a plan B that is not immediately obvious: Perhaps it's willing to accept Syria's de facto breakup between a friendly Assad-run enclave and a hostile Sunni-run breakaway, for example, or perhaps it's planning to drastically increase its military commitment in Syria so as to defeat the rebels outright and obviate the need for a piece deal.
A second possibility is that Russia has no plan B, that it is maintaining its Syria intervention out of some combination of inertia and a fear of what will happen if it withdraws, that it is now stuck in a costly and open-ended quagmire with no real aim other than desperately maintaining a status quo that can only last for so long.
This no-strategy strategy should look familiar to Americans: It was our strategy for the past decade in Afghanistan, where we expended tremendous resources and accomplished little more than temporarily staving off the country's inevitable collapse. This was also the Soviet Union's strategy in Afghanistan in the 1980s. So if it sounds impossible to you that Vladimir Putin could get himself stuck in that dire of a situation in Syria, there is plenty of precedent.
It's not clear anyone can pressure Assad to leave power
To the degree that Middle East analysts ever agree on anything, they agree that Syria's civil war cannot be solved as long as Assad remains in power. He is too central to the conflict and its perpetuation. And as long as the Syrian civil war persists, so will ISIS have its state from which it can threaten the world.
A lesson of Russia's reported failure to push out Assad is that removing Assad may simply be impossible. The only foreign power that can match Russia's leverage in Damascus is Iran, and indeed it would seem that Assad invited Moscow's intervention in part to balance against Iran's growing influence.
There are surprisingly compelling signs that Iran might be preparing for Assad's fall. But that does not mean that Iran is going to choose to push out Assad, or even that it is capable of doing so.
Ultimately, the Assad regime and the larger Alawite network that supports it appear to have decided that Assad has to stay, no matter the cost. The regime has, every day since the uprising began in 2011, chosen the most extreme tactics possible, even when those tactics are obviously so extreme that they will inevitably backfire. There is little reason to believe, after nearly five years, that even the regime's closest allies can convince or compel the regime to see that removing Assad is in its best interests.
Assad's strategy has always been, ultimately, suicidal. No regime can survive after the majority of the country's population has withdrawn its consent. When people say that Assad cannot rule Syria, that's not an opinion about his leadership — it's a fact. His continued presence as the country's leader guarantees continued war.
At the same time, his regime's outright military defeat or collapse would invite an entirely new civil war, akin to Afghanistan's 1990s civil war, after the collapse of the pro-Soviet government there.
Those are, as long as the status quo remains, our two options: perpetual war or an entirely new war. It appears that even Syria's most powerful ally can't change that.
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