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Assad becoming an expensive client for Moscow

In several media interviews last week, James Jeffrey, the US special envoy to Syria, signaled that Washington had taken part in talks with the Russians. Whereas in the past such talks were mostly about the deconfliction of military operations, they now seem to be aimed at finding an end to the conflict through diplomatic channels.

On Thursday, Jeffrey made a reserved statement about Russia cooperating to end the crisis in Syria. And he said in another interview that the Russians know “what kind of ally” they have in Syria. Jeffrey also pointed out the media campaign launched against Bashar Assad by Russia, particularly regarding his extravagant reported purchase of a painting for $30 million, while the majority of the Syrian people are lingering in poverty. There is no clear indication that Russia is yet willing to let go of Assad, but the facts nonetheless signal an important issue: Assad is becoming too expensive a client for Moscow.

Despite a generally inconsistent US foreign policy, there has been a consistent attitude regarding the Russian intervention in Syria. Barack Obama, as well as Donald Trump, wanted the intervention to become too costly for Moscow to handle. This is why the Americans have been reluctant to put any serious offer on the table for Russia regarding letting Assad go.

When Russia first intervened in 2015, Obama told Vladimir Putin that he was going to sink in a “quagmire,” the same way the US sank in Iraq. Putin banked on his intervention bolstering Russia’s position as a superpower and being able to use it to leverage business deals with countries in the Middle East, as well as to present himself as a key powerbroker in Syria and the region. Because of their positions on Syria, the Gulf countries, Turkey and Israel want to court the Russians, but the US is trying to limit those relations.

After Turkey bought the S-400 missile defense system from Moscow, America pressured Ankara to keep the Russian missiles in their boxes and not deploy them. In return, it offered Turkey US-made Patriot missiles to protect its borders. Therefore, the US policy has been to limit the influence Russia can garner regionally from its position in Syria. Meanwhile, the US is watching Russia incur very high costs, knowing that it cannot support such an expensive venture for too long and that it needs to start recouping the costs, especially now the coronavirus pandemic and low oil prices are taking their toll on the Russian economy. As for keeping the Iranians in check, Israel is doing that job by bombing Iranian targets in Syria with Russian acquiescence.

The US is not in a rush, as long as Assad is contained as a regional problem. It is happy to see Russia bleeding cash and scrambling for a way out. Washington wants to negotiate with Russia, but from a position of power and not a position of weakness, while ensuring minimum military involvement, which is in line with Trump’s isolationist foreign policy.

Syria is not a country with important natural resources. The lease of the port of Tartus for 49 years and contracts to exploit Syrian phosphate resources are not enough to pay for Moscow’s expenses in Syria. Unlike Iraq, which has the potential to pay for its own reconstruction, Syria needs international donors to start the process. Russia is hoping to get an important chunk of those contracts. Nevertheless, the West is firm in its position on the conflict: There will be no reconstruction until there is a clear political transition, which is not very likely with Assad in power.

Meanwhile, Russia has reached a cap on the deals it can close in the region, or at least on the deals the US will allow. And every day in Syria means additional staggering expenses for the Russian military. Needless to say, the Russian intervention has also been costly in terms of lives. It has lost at least 19 manned aircraft and, in January, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights published a report in which it estimated that Russia had lost 264 servicemen in the conflict.

On the other hand, Assad has not changed his behavior in a manner that would allow Syrians to accept his rule. His brutality is unaltered. He does not commit to any settlements brokered by the Russians with the opposition, nor has he been able to provide any basic services. According to a Russian source of mine, Moscow is fed up with Assad’s free rider attitude. Obsessed with victory and with reconquering all territories, he is totally divorced from reality. The Russians are realizing that Assad is becoming increasingly expensive and that he is putting them in an unsustainable situation. Despite media campaigns and cracks in the house of Assad — with Bashar’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, denouncing in a YouTube video what he described as being wrongly targeted by the regime — Russia is not yet ready to let Assad go.

Removing Assad prior to stabilizing the country might lead to a total collapse of the regime, with Russia left to bring order to an even more chaotic situation. So the Kremlin is trying hard to restrain him and pressure him in order to minimize its costs. Few expected the most recent cease-fire in Idlib to hold. Nevertheless, it is holding and Jeffrey said he is expecting it to hold for a few more months. It is probably because of Russian pressure that Assad is refraining from a full-fledged assault on the province.

Obsessed with victory and with reconquering all territories, he is totally divorced from reality.

The months to come will be even more difficult for Russia. America’s Caesar Act will come into effect on June 17, inflicting biting sanctions on Russian companies that deal with Assad. In addition to finding a proper alternative that can keep most of the regime together, Putin does not want to be seen as giving up on his ally. More importantly, he does not want to look as though he is bowing to Western pressure. Putin’s central narrative is anti-Western; hyping up the breakup of the Soviet Union and the way the West reneged on its promises, leaving Russia to linger in dire economic conditions.

A perceived loss in Syria to Western powers would compromise Putin’s standing domestically, which is something he will not allow. Therefore, although Assad is becoming increasingly expensive, Putin won’t let him go unless he is offered a deal that will enable him to save face.