Paying Putin’s price in Syria

Friday 19/02/2016

It is doubtful that a ceasefire can be imposed in Syria, particularly as Moscow seems to believe that any ceasefire should not include a halt to its bombardment of Aleppo and its environs. Russia is using the pretext of the Islamic State (ISIS) to deny that it is an integral part of a war being waged on the Syrian people.
Amid talk of a vague “cessation of hostilities”, the question remains: What exactly is the objective of Russia’s military campaign in Syria?
With every day that passes, it becomes increasingly clear that this intervention is simply to defend Syrian President Bashar Assad in his war against the Syrian people, nothing more and nothing less. But what is Russian President Vladimir Putin willing to accept to step away from Assad?
The Russian campaign has forced opposition forces into retreat on more than one front, cutting supply lines and displacing tens of thousands of ordinary Syrians. Putin has always preferred to take the offensive, this is a policy that has worked for him and he has never encountered anybody who has successfully stood up to him. This is something he pursued from the very beginning during the second Chechen war in 1999-2000. The Russian siege of Grozny brought about destruction and devastation on a scale that had not been seen since World War II.
Putin built his career on the fact that nobody is prepared to stand up to him. That was clear from Russia’s actions towards Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 and in Syria today. It is clear to Putin that the Europeans do not want a confrontation with Russia and that US President Barack Obama has no stomach to go beyond rhetoric, leaving him free to run the board.
After Ukraine, Europe and the Americans contented themselves with imposing sanctions on Russia but these have not stopped Putin from getting involved in Syria and using the situation there as a powerful bargaining chip with the West.
Assad’s continued presence is the bargaining chip that Putin currently holds. Is there anybody who is willing to pay the price demanded by the Russian president for this? It is clear that the Assad regime could not survive without the support of Moscow but sooner or later, Putin will realise that Syria is no Chechnya and that what worked in one situation will not necessarily work in another.
Putin has justified his Syrian adventure to the Russian people by saying it would not cost the taxpayers money, framing the military campaign as a training exercise for Russian forces.
To return to the question: Is anyone willing to pay the price required by Putin? It is difficult to imagine that anyone will be willing, particularly as in the long run, time is running against Putin and Russia, whose fragile economy is dependent on oil and gas.
At the moment, the price of the war is being paid by the Syrian people, who find themselves at the heart of events with the entire world seemingly conspiring against them.
Russia cannot now easily extract itself from this situation, nor can Iran or Hezbollah. As for the United States, it has failed to go all in and is instead watching the destruction of Syria pass it by.
So, how long will it take until the Russian economy is in such dire straits that Putin must reconsider his position and negotiate, seriously, over the future of Assad and Syria?
Amid declining oil prices, the announcement of an agreement between Russia and Saudi Arabia to freeze oil production — albeit at near record levels — could be a powerful indication of changes to come. Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is to visit Moscow in March, perhaps indicating movement on this issue as Riyadh looks to stabilise the price of oil while protecting its market share.
Is this the first step to Putin reassessing his priorities in Syria and taking a second look, finally, at what he wants from this military intervention?