MOSCOW—Russian President Vladimir Putin is having a busy week meeting with leaders of Syria, Turkey, and Iran to build up what’s portrayed as an anti-terror alliance.
Missing from this coalition? The United States and members of that other coalition Washington organized in 2014 to fight the so-called Islamic State.
“Putin’s preparing for the end game,” a senior Arab diplomat told The Daily Beast, and he is looking to outmaneuver the American-backed anti-ISIS group that brought together 70 nations. It's a process Putin initiated in public almost a year ago with peace talks in the Kazakh capital, Astana, under the patronage of Russia, Turkey, and Iran, but did not include the U.S.
On Monday, Putin met with Assad in Sochi, on the Black Sea. This comes on the heels of the joint statement by Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump after brief bilateral encounters on the sidelines of an economic summit earlier this month in which Trump essentially signed off on the Russian vision of Syrian peace.
“Russia once again demonstrates it is a superpower and it’s back,” Arkady Dubnov, an independent political analyst said on Echo of Moscow.
The Kremlin did not report the news of the Putin-Assad meeting until Tuesday, posting pictures of both men smiling and hugging, surrounded by their generals. The official report said that Assad conveyed greetings from the Syrian people and expressed “gratitude for all of the efforts Russia made to save our country.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Putin spoke with Trump on the phone for about an hour about the crises in the Middle East, Ukraine, and in North Korea. But the White House readout on that talk did little more than reiterate the U.S. position adopted in the joint statement on Syria earlier this month.
“I believe that the problem of terrorism is a global one, a lot should be done to achieve a complete victory over terrorism, but as far as our cooperation in the fight against terrorists in Syria goes, the military operation is really coming to an end,” Putin said, according to CNN.
The joint U.S.-Russian statement earlier this month, which was negotiated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and then signed by Putin and Trump, pledged their commitment to respect Syria’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.
But there is a fundamental disconnect, since Russia and Iran are the key allies and supporters of Assad, while Trump has placed Tehran at the top of his terrorist enemies list. At the same time, the Iranians and Russians regard the Saudis—who have an inordinate amount of influence with Trump—as supporters of supposed freedom fighters difficult to distinguish from terrorists.
Russian independent observers find it difficult to define the Kremlin’s foreign policy these days. Moscow is talking about withdrawing from the devastating war in Syria that has killed at least 400,000 people and pushed millions out of their homes, but Russian leaders also are looking for ways to stay in Syria for good.
“Putin is spinning between the West, Syria, Iran, and Turkey—on one hand he makes an agreement with Trump to cooperate on Syria, on the other moves closer to Iran, which immediately makes Washington upset,” Igor Bunin, president of Moscow’s Center for Political Technologies told The Daily Beast. “His foreign policy is blurry at the moment. It seems Putin is looking for a minimal success in the Syrian military operation for Russia, which to him would be to keep the Russian naval base in Tartus.”
On the day Assad arrived in Sochi, the Russian press reported that mortar shells hit the Syrian capital of Damascus. The Russian Foreign Ministry said one of them struck the fence around the Russian embassy residence. On Tuesday, Russia proposed a statement at the UN Security Council condemning the shelling of the Russian Embassy in Syria. The Russian news agencies Tass and RIA reported that United States “blocked the statement.”
Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said that colleagues from the United States once again disappointed the Kremlin.
“Although we have established very solid cooperation in Syria with them [the U.S.] when it comes to condemning terrorists and extremists, we still have big problems,” the minister said, and added: “As you know, there are reports about the USA using extremist groups from time to time in their own interests for pushing their own agenda forward, in spite of their reassuring statements that the only reason American forces are in Syria is to destroy terrorist groups.”
During the Monday meeting in Sochi, Putin introduced Assad to senior Russian Defense Ministry officials, who were there to attend the State Armament Program, a 10-year project launched in 2010 aiming to reform the Russian army.
“I would like to introduce you to people who played a key role in saving Syria,” Putin told Assad during the introduction to the military officials.
Putin declared to Assad that Russia’s military operation in Syria “is indeed coming to an end.”
Did that mean that Russia managed to win the war over the so-called Islamic State? (Putting aside, of course, the massive role played by American and allied air power, and the fact that Assad’s forces spent most of the last five years attacking more moderate opposition forces while leaving ISIS virtually untouched.)
“It is too early to say that Russia won the war against ISIS, but it is possible that tomorrow we might see new clashes between Russian forces and militant groups supported by the U.S.,” Alexander Golts, a Russian independent military analyst, told The Daily Beast.
Moscow’s allies openly speak about “the end of ISIS era.” On Tuesday Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that the so-called Islamic State had been “eliminated or minimized.”
On Wednesday, Putin is expected to meet with the leaders of Turkey and Iran to discuss the future of Syria.
“What is obvious is that President Putin is building an alliance of Assad supporters together with Iran and Turkey,” Golts concluded.
The Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Tuesday that the purpose for Putin-Assad meeting was to prepare the Syrian leadership for the upcoming initiatives from Turkey and Iranian leaders.
With additional reporting by Christopher Dickey in Paris