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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

How Putin is engineering a politically palatable way out of Syria

Under pressure at home and anxious to fix his broken relationship with Europe, the Russian president is deploying diplomacy to fund his foreign escapades, writes Faisal Al Yafai

Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, at a joint press conference with Angela Merkel, Germany's Chancellor, at Schloss Meseberg castle in Germany on Saturday, August 18. Krisztian Bocsi / Bloomberg
Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, at a joint press conference with Angela Merkel, Germany's Chancellor, at Schloss Meseberg castle in Germany on Saturday, August 18. Krisztian Bocsi / Bloomberg

Mere months after he was elected to his fourth presidential term, the gloss appears to be coming off Vladimir Putin's presidency.

A series of opinion polls published by the Levada Centre in Russia this month showed there is now increased frustration with Mr Putin's policies. In one, the level of public trust in the president dropped below 50 per cent for the first time in years. In another, just 16 per cent considered his foreign policy an asset. And in a third, 28 per cent of Russians said they would personally protest falling standards of living – the highest figure since 1999, the year before Mr Putin won his first presidential election.

Many are already protesting. More than 10,000 Russians descended on Moscow over a weekend in July, angry that the retirement age was due to increase by five years for men and eight for women. By some estimates, 90 per cent of the population oppose the bill, an astonishing figure in a country where media is carefully monitored.

This sort of social unrest is bad for Mr Putin, who has built his reputation on stability at home and strength abroad. Yet the root problem is economic. Faced with sanctions, political isolation and an expensive war in Syria, Russia simply does not have the money to fulfil its domestic and foreign policy goals.

One of the most expensive and essential goals is rebuilding Syria as the war appears to be coming to an end. To ease the economic pressure, Mr Putin has stepped up diplomacy aimed at persuading western countries to fund Syria's reconstruction. The diplomatic carrot he is dangling is an end to the refugee crisis. That Syria is still incredibly unsafe for refugees is, to him, irrelevant; Mr Putin intends to rebuild his political reputation on the backs of the most vulnerable Syrians.

Two weeks ago, a leaked memo revealed that Russia had proposed forming a joint group with the United States to finance infrastructure renovation. The proposal was apparently rejected.

Over the weekend, Mr Putin was back discussing his Syria plan with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the German town of Gransee. From brief comments made at the time, it appeared they were talking at cross purposes.

Germany, Ms Merkel said, wanted to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib province as well as bring forward the possibility of elections. Mr Putin, however, stressed that more must be done to help Syrian refugees return home and the crucial part of that is offering assistance to rebuild the country.

This is the central argument of Mr Putin’s new strategy: that without money to rebuild Syria, millions of refugees cannot go home. It is a message he knows will be heard attentively in the Middle Eastern and European countries that have borne the brunt of the refugee crisis.

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Russia is using the same line with the countries of this region. On Monday, Lebanon's foreign minister Gebran Bassil was in Moscow for talks. With a million Syrian refugees, no country in the world has borne a greater proportional burden than Lebanon.

In Moscow, foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia wanted to ensure that “Lebanon is not a hostage of the Syrian crisis”, echoing precisely the sentiment many Lebanese feel. Mr Bassil agreed: “Lebanon supports the quick and safe return of Syrian refugees without any link to a political solution,” he said, meaning, in plain language, that the government is determined to send the Syrian refugees home, even if Bashar Al Assad stays in power in Damascus. With the enormous pressure that Lebanon is under, it is no surprise that the government has grasped at the lifeline.

Mr Putin is hoping Europeans will do the same. Whatever Ms Merkel and the leaders of other European countries feel about possible elections in Syria, they have no way of enforcing those desires on the regime. By contrast, the issue of refugees is extremely potent in Germany and Ms Merkel has faced serious opposition for allowing the entry of thousands of them.

A proposal that could see them return to Syria is a lifeline, if not to Ms Merkel, then to other politicians who might seek to replace her. It is the reason why the Russian foreign ministry is touting a four-way summit with Turkey, Germany and France, freezing out the US and the UK. Mr Putin is offering Germany and Europe a way out of the refugee crisis with a plan that will give Russia an opportunity to entrench its presence in Syria, demonstrate its ability to broker international agreements on matters of global security, and re-enter European power circles.

Powerful European countries appear willing to listen but are in no mood to agree. In time, however, they might. There are few other options to hand and public opinion, in Europe, Turkey and, to a lesser degree, Lebanon, is turning towards a swift outcome.

If Mr Putin can engineer a politically palatable way out, perhaps by offering elections in Syria, even if it would be understood that Mr Al Assad would stand and win, that might be enough.

Squeezed at home, Mr Putin believes he has come up with a way to get European countries to bail him out of his Syria policy, while making it seem as if he is doing them a favour. As a leader, he has often used foreign policy to fix what is broken domestically – hence his immense popularity bump after annexing Crimea.

Now he is hoping to use foreign policy to fix his broken relationship with Europe and give himself some breathing room at home. The price that Syrians will pay for this policy is not part of his calculation.