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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Removing Russian troops from Syria will backfire on Vladimir Putin

With his troops gone from the country, the Russian president will find that Bashar Al Assad no longer needs him, writes Faisal Al Yafai

On Vladimir Putin's visit to Latakia in Syria, it was clear Bashar Al Assad, 4th left, was playing second fiddle / Rossiya 24 TV Channel photo via AP
On Vladimir Putin's visit to Latakia in Syria, it was clear Bashar Al Assad, 4th left, was playing second fiddle / Rossiya 24 TV Channel photo via AP

The moment they face an election, some politicians immediately wrap themselves in the military. Thus Russian president Vladimir Putin, days after announcing his inevitable candidature for the presidential elections next year, flew to Syria to preside over a military parade and announce that Russia's war in Syria was over.

For Mr Putin, that announcement will play very well back home. Russia has managed to do something that the West could not: involve itself in a Middle Eastern war and emerge victorious and unscathed. But even as he soaks up the plaudits in Moscow, he should beware what is happening in Damascus. Because with Russian troops out of Syria, Mr Putin will lose any leverage he has over Syrian president Bashar Al Assad. Without Mr Putin's military might, the regime in Damascus no longer needs him.

Until now, Russian and Syrian interests have aligned. The regime needed Russia as a security guarantor. Without Russian firepower, ISIL and the Syrian rebels could not have been defeated and the repeated incursions of Israel's planes could not have been curtailed.

For Russia, getting involved in Syria represented good politics, domestically and internationally. On the international front, it cemented Russia's reputation as a world power, able to project power and defend allies beyond its borders.

Domestically, stopping the march of Islamist groups was necessary for Russia's own security: many of ISIL's top commanders were Chechens and ISIL has long spewed its propaganda in Russian towards Russia's borderlands, persuading Russians to join them in Syria and Iraq. Russian strategists reasoned it was easier to stop ISIL as they marched on Damascus than it would be if they began marching to Moscow.

But with the military part of the campaign winding down, the Assad regime no longer needs Russia to the same extent. From here on out, the interests of the two will diverge. This will be seen most clearly over the Astana process, the gathering of Syrian opposition groups that is meant to chart a way out of the Syrian crisis.

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For Russia, the Astana process isn’t a sham, in the way that it is viewed from the presidential palace in Damascus. It is more of a political necessity. The Russian approach has been to involve some opposition groups in some way in the process, with the expectation that, in the move towards any election, Mr Al Assad would win, but with sufficient buy-in from the opposition groups – who may be allowed to field a “unity” candidate, for example, or perhaps be given some television airtime – that enough of them accept the inevitable. There will be just enough debate, in other words, for enough people to accept there was a real election. Mr Putin may not know it, but Mr Al Assad won't tolerate even that.

The Astana process matters a great deal for Russia. The outcome isn't in doubt but the continuation of the process is essential. Mr Putin knows that these political processes give legitimacy to the final deal, and if the Astana process doesn't continue to play out, Russia's involvement in the Syrian civil war will look less like the intervention of a great power seeking to staunch the flow of blood and more like the propping up of a friendly regime.

Mr Putin is highly attuned to these political nuances. He has seen how western governments have used political process to build legitimacy. It is what he tried to do in Ukraine, by holding a referendum in Crimea after Russia had effectively annexed the territory. Without the referendum, taking Crimea looked like brutal land theft. After the referendum, it could be framed as reflecting the people's will. He will be looking to do the same in Syria.

But Mr Al Assad will not follow Mr Putin down this path. For him, the Astana process becomes less relevant with each passing day.

The Assad regime long ago decided not to play the Geneva process game, but it persisted with the Astana track because Russia wanted it. But once the Russian military goes, so will any desire to play pretend. After all, continuing with the negotiations in any form merely legitimises the opposition, however weak and divided they are.

This is where the divergence will come. With Russia's military campaign over, the focus will now turn to the political track. And here, Mr Al Assad will delay, deceive and obstruct, if possible for years, ensuring that there will never be any meaningful dialogue with the opposition, in any form. Mr Al Assad, after all, is the incumbent. If the opposition tie themselves in knots, attending conference after conference, with a periodic walkout of opposition leaders as they realise the hall of mirrors the process has become, so much the better. “There is no-one to negotiate with,” Mr Al Assad will shrug.

All the while, the Assad regime will be cosying up to others. Because there are other rivals for the affections of Damascus, primarily Turkey and Iran. Despite the public face of unity put on the presidents of Russia, Turkey and Iran in Sochi last month, all have divergent interests in Syria and Mr Al Assad will play them off ruthlessly. If Mr Putin believes that merely saving the regime will be enough to guarantee Russia a long-term seat in Damascus, he has not studied enough Syrian history.

Iran, in particular, is watching carefully, concerned that Russia might seek to reduce the influence of its military advisors or the role of its allied militias like Hezbollah. Iran has invested decades into ties between Damascus and Tehran; it will not give those up simply because of a couple of years of airstrikes by the Russians.

Mr Putin should be careful not to declare victory too quickly. When he flew into the Hmeimim airbase in Latakia this week, it was clear that Mr Al Assad was the junior partner in the alliance. The anti-Assad internet rejoiced in a video showing a Russian soldier holding back Mr Al Assad from walking beside Putin, highlighting his subordinate status.

But many have underestimated Mr Al Assad before. He may not have the political wiles of his father, but has enough strategic sense, backed by the institutional knowledge of a regime that has spent decades defying greater powers, to outwit and outlast challenges. A regime so willing to discard the lives of its people will not hesitate to dismiss the interests of its allies.

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