Syria’s embattled dictator Bashar al-Assad made a surprise visit to the Kremlin. No reporters in Russia’s state-controlled press were informed of his arrival on Tuesday night; it was only when Assad had already departed home for Syria that Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, informed journalists of the talks. Only afterward were the photos and on-camera welcome by Putin released.
According to one U.S. diplomat who spoke to The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity, the U.S. embassy in Moscow was caught completely unaware of the trip. “The theories [for why Putin extended the invitation to Assad] are a) stick it to the West, b) show the West that Russia is the place to come for consultations with Assad—i.e. if you want a deal to get rid of this guy, you’ll need to come through us, or c) consultations before the Lavrov-Kerry-Saudi-Turkish trilats later this week.”
The latter refers to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s announcement, which coincided with Assad’s departure from Moscow, that he and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry are to meet in Vienna on Friday to discuss with their Saudi and Turkish counterparts the Syrian war. That war, in many ways, now consists of two separate “coalitions.” One is headed by Moscow—with a major assist from Iran—and designed to militarily support Assad’s badly attrited regime; the other, headed by Washington, is meant only to contain and weaken the Islamic State. Neither, as it turns out, has so far been terribly effective in achieving its objective.
“Assad’s public visit to Moscow to stroke Putin’s ego is not surprising given Moscow’s efforts to prop up the Syrian regime,” one U.S. intelligence official told The Daily Beast. “That said, it is interesting that Assad visited Moscow first—instead of Tehran—and that he left Syria in the midst of the regime’s largest counteroffensive in months.”
U.S. intelligence officials have previously assessed that the Assad regime is getting significant backing from Iranian ground forces, and that the support continues to grow, but that it’s not necessarily translating into victories. They think that while some tactical swings along the frontline might favor Assad’s regime in the near term, many provincial capitals occupied by his army remain under threat.
That may help explain Assad’s decision to be seen publicly aligning with Putin, who has supplied essential air cover to forces on the ground. The official characterized Assad’s Moscow visit as a publicity stunt that doesn’t bode well for the dictator’s future. “It only reinforces the notion that Assad has lost control of his country, and is now firmly under Putin’s thumb,” the official said.
“Should the regime’s offensive fail to dislodge opposition elements or suffer major setbacks, the blame will land on Assad’s shoulders,” the official added. “Putin is not one to bet on a losing horse, and Assad’s track record in Syria suggests the regime faces long odds of a military victory. At some point, Putin will have to decide on how far Russia will go to support one man.”
So what was discussed at the Kremlin in those few hours?
The Russian government has only released the footage and transcripts of an initial meet-and-greet between Putin and Assad. The bulk of their parlay took place at a dinner attended by the two and joined by Lavrov, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. That dinner reportedly went on for over three hours, and while a few photographs from it have been made public, nothing else from it has been.
During the initial exchange of pleasantries, Putin saluted his Levantine client for having faced “international terrorism…practically alone,” glossing over the increasingly sizable role played by Iranian fighters and Lebanese Hezbollah, both of which were directly militarily supporting Assad long before Russia intervened last month.
Indeed, Russia’s aerial campaign was closely coordinated with Iran’s security establishment. Russian military and intelligence officers are also running a joint command center with Iranian and Hezbollah equals out of Damascus, Assad’s ancestral home. Russia has recently constructed its own forward operating base at Basel al-Assad International Airport, capable of housing 2,000 military personnel, and adding to its longstanding naval port in the southern province Tartus, where it is also expanding (PDF) the Hamidiyah Agricultural Airfield. Interestingly, and for reasons that may owe as much to optics as to security, it from was from Latakia that Assad was transported to Moscow.
Analysis of FlightRadar data, published on a Russian military aviation blog indicates that a Russian government-owned Il-62 airliner, fitted with a special communications array, arrived in Latakia on the night of October 19 and flew Assad to his meeting yesterday, taking a circuitous route through Iraqi and Iranian airspace, then over the Caspian Sea, bypassing Turkey altogether. Assad was thus airlifted by Russia out of his own country, and from an airport named for his deceased brother, no less—a fact that will no doubt contribute to Putin’s intended signal to the West that Damascus has gone from being a battered client state to wholly owned subsidiary in the Middle East.
Putin’s war in Syria underscores this newfound dependency, albeit without producing much by way of results. A recent analysis conducted by Reuters has found that four-fifths of all Russian sorties over the last three weeks have hit non-Islamic State targets. Many of these belong to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) of “moderate” anti-Assad rebels, vetted and armed by the Central Intelligence Agency. And while the FSA has lost terrain in Aleppo to the Islamic State, which has opportunistically exploited Russia’s air campaign by hitting the same targets simultaneously, despite a ferocious combination of air strikes, artillery barrages and ground assaults, the regime isn’t really winning.
In fact, Assad’s forces have continued to lose ground in the hills on the eastern fringes of Latakia, where Free Syrian Army rebels, armed with U.S.-supplied TOW anti-tank missiles, have taken several new positions. Though Captain Basil Zimo, the commander of the FSA’s First Coastal Division, was killed in an airstrike in the Jabal al-Akrad area of Latakia.
Where the Russian Air Force has devoted most of its firepower—in the central and western salient north of Damascus—Assad’s army has yet to seize any real battlefield advantage. In Hama, for instance, an offensive toward the rebel-held towns of al-Lataminah and Kafr Nabudah has won the regime little more than a handful of villages and many burnt-out tanks, while moves on a small rebel enclave north of Homs remain similarly ineffective.
The much-vaunted offensive on Aleppo, spearheaded by as many as 2,000 Iranian ground troops, began in earnest on Oct. 16 but is still failing to make much of a dent.
Russian jets have been pounding rebel-held towns to the south and west of the city, striking hospitals and schools, but rebel fighters are holding out and inflicting losses on attackers near al-Waddihi, south of the city. Furthermore, a string of commanders in Iran’s expeditionary Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force have met their demise over the last two weeks, despite a surge indicated by a visit to the province by Quds Force chief Qassem Suleimani.
To the east of Aleppo city, things have been going slightly better for the regime, this time with rumors of collaboration with ISIS, who have taken ground from the rebels following Russian airstrikes, only to relinquish it government forces. One regime installation ISIS is making a concerted play for is the Kweres airbase, an isolated outpost, in Aleppo, with unverified reports of heavy casualties sustained on both sides.
The Russian military operation is less than a month old in combat terms, and statements from Russian officials and Moscow-friendly analysts indicate that the Kremlin is geared up to fight for three to six months.
And there’s a chance that the Russian target list may expand beyond Syria’s borders. Iraqi politicians are increasingly calling for Russia to hit ISIS there, saying the yearlong U.S. campaign has not been effective.
So far, however, it is not clear whether Putin will accommodate the requests. In other words: Iraq may have rebuffed the United States only to have Russia rebuff the Iraqis.
While Russian strikes inside Iraq would reinforce Russia’s message that it is a major player on the world stage, its interests in Iraq are limited. The prevailing feeling, two U.S. defense officials told The Daily Beast, is that Russia will, in the next few weeks, conduct some kind of military offensive in Iraq, but it will far short of the campaign of an estimated 140 strikes that the Russians have launched so far in Syria. Moscow’s attack in Iraq could be as simple as a cruise missile strike, as complicated as a several-day air campaign, these officials said.
“At some point Russians will fly into Iraq but it will be window dressing to show they can do it,” said Christopher Harmer, a naval analyst at the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for the Study of War who focuses on the war against ISIS. “It would purely be a messaging strike. It is not going to fundamentally alter the war.”
Either way, that the Iraqis are vocally asking for Russian help has created an awkward relationship triangle. Over the past 15 months, the United States has launched nearly 5,000 airstrikes inside Iraq and stationed 3,000 troops there to advise and train the Iraqi counterparts.
All the while, the Iraqis reportedly sent a delegation to Moscow, allowed the Russians to fly a cruise missile across their country this month, and publicly said they believe the Russians would do a better job against ISIS than the U.S. could.
Russian troops already are operating in Iraq, forcing the United States to delicately share intelligence with their supposed Iraqi allies.
Just this week, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, traveled to Iraq and said the Iraqis assured him they would not seek Russian airstrikes. Dunford also suggested that Russian intervention could reduce the U.S. effort there.
“I said it would make it very difficult for us to be able to provide the kind of support that you need if the Russians were here conducting operations as well,” Dunford told a small group of reporters traveling with him after meeting with top Iraqi officials, according to Reuters.
But a day after Dunford’s visit, a top Shiite alliance and members of Iraq’s most powerful brigades reportedly sent a request to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi to expand the coalition to include Russia.
The wrangling in Iraq comes amid an unconfirmed report this week, circulated by pro-Assad media, that three Russian soldiers have already been killed by rebel shelling in Latakia. The Kremlin denied having any ground troops in Syria at all, although, as The Daily Beast earlier reported, Russian contract soldiers have refused deployment orders to the Levant, risking state prosecution for treason. Moreover, according to U.S. officials (PDF), members from Russia’s 810th Naval Infantry Brigade, which a year ago took part in the annexation of Crimea, are indeed operating in Syria.
If Russian airpower alone is failing to provide the regime with the killer blow necessary to ensure its survival in a sustainable territory, then perhaps the next stage is either to seek some sort of compromise deal or to become more significantly involved by means of ground forces, something which Russia, officially at least, is not planning on doing.
Still, the Kremlin might be hedging its bets. It announced this evening that Putin has today had telephone conversations with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, and Jordan’s King Abdullah. (Erdogan this week suggested that Assad could remain in power for six months, a climb-down from prior demands that the latter leave immediately.) The press release states that the “central theme of the discussions was the situation in Syria and the combined fight against international terrorism,” with Putin relaying details of his talks with Assad.
But even if Putin wanted to bomb his way to diplomacy, he may have foreclosed on such an option by pummelling the West’s rebels. “Putin’s incursion in Syria has severely undermined diplomatic efforts to resolve the civil war,” said Andrew Bowen, director of Middle East Studies at the Center for the National Interest. “How do you convince rebels you’re busy killing that they should talk to you?”
—with additional reporting by Shane Harris