Bashar al-Assad has never been coy about his plans. Through much of Syria’s civil war, its president has proclaimed that opposition is equivalent to terrorism, and must be wiped out. His regime is simply following the policy that grew out of its supporters’ favorite slogan: “Assad, or we burn the country.” This is why no amount of pablum from the Russia-sponsored process to craft a political resolution to the conflict—and humiliate Western powers by superseding their own peace process—can stop the terrible endgame that awaits in Idlib.
In recent days, the Russian air force has intensified its bombing of the rebel-held Idlib province in Syria’s northwest, as Assad masses ground troops on its edges. There is growing concern that the reconquest of Idlib will cause still more avoidable suffering for 3 million Syrians, most of them civilians. They are trapped in the rural, mountainous topography of Idlib with nowhere to run. “The liberation of Idlib … will be the last nail in the coffin of terrorism, frustrating those who bet on it and invested billions of dollars in it,” Bashar Jaafari, the Syrian regime’s representative at the United Nations, said on Friday. His words made a mockery of the United States and other governments that half-heartedly aided rebels and opposition groups, and today decry the coming catastrophe in Idlib.
For nearly a year, Syrians and Syria watchers have been anticipating Assad’s move on Idlib. With pivotal help from Russia and Iran, he turned the tide of the war and has been steadily reasserting his authority over the vast swathes of territory his regime lost during the early years of the uprising. What Assad plans to do now is kill the remaining opposition, armed or not, along with the millions who were forced from their homes by conflict and ended up in Idlib, the country’s last refuge for anti-Assad Syrians.
At nearly every stage of the conflict, Russia has served as a willing executioner of Assad’s strategy. Judging by its action and its language, Russia is fully on board with the plan. Yet Western diplomats and humanitarians have pled with Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, to use his supposed influence over Assad to avoid a disaster. “They have the power to ensure civilians are protected from the relentless unlawful attacks that have characterized much of this brutal conflict,” Amnesty International’s Samah Hadid said in a statement. Well-intentioned diplomats and humanitarians like Hadid believe that Putin doesn’t want a pariah client state on his hands, and that Russia will supposedly use its power to force the Syrian regime to agree to a political solution to end its war rather than resorting to further brute force.
If only there were any evidence to support this theory. It’s naive to think that Russia really wants to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, or even—as some otherwise hard-headed analysts have argued—that Putin can compel Assad to do anything at all. Instead, the unfolding catastrophe in Idlib will reinforce the most bitter lesson of the conflict in Syria: When the world order no longer restrains crimes against humanity, cynical and violent strongmen like Assad have more leverage than their superpower patrons.
When Putin has urged Assad to restrain himself in Idlib, he has done so with an eye on the future. Russia would like Turkey’s help in rebuilding Syria and reintegrating it with the region. If Assad carries out his final onslaught, Turkey, which shares a long border with the country and hosts more than 3 million Syrian refugees, will face only bad options: invade to stop the bloodshed, open its borders to another million or more refugees, or appear complicit in a major massacre. “An attack on Idlib will result in disaster, massacre, and a very big humanitarian tragedy,” Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the president of Turkey, said on September 7.
In hopes of staving off a humanitarian disaster in Idlib, the leaders of Turkey, Iran, and Russia issued a joint statement last Friday after a summit meeting in Tehran. It was notable mainly for its vain hopes that a humanitarian disaster—which would be politically costly for Turkey and embarrassing for Russia and Iran—could be avoided. In their communique, the leaders “reaffirmed their conviction that there could be no military solution to the Syrian conflict and that it could only end through a negotiated political process.”
Of course, this formulation perverts reality: Assad is pursuing only a military solution. He knows that his guarantors will wring their hands over his bloody tactics, but will ultimately accede to his demands. He can count on Russia to provide what he needs—bombs, manpower, or political cover at the United Nations.
That’s because, even as Putin and his emissaries express frustration with Assad’s execution of the final phase of the war, he benefits from their partnership. Assad has raised Russia’s military profile in the Middle East, granting secure, long-term basing rights. Together with Iran, Syria and Russia have frustrated American designs in the Levant. Furthermore, there’s no alternative strongman for Syria. Russia might protest that Assad is a recalcitrant ally, but Moscow will continue to invest in its relationship with Damascus. It’s a low-risk, high-return investment: Moscow doesn’t actually suffer any setbacks if it’s perceived to be siding with a spoiler and undermining the international system.
Analysts, diplomats, and perhaps even the Russian leadership itself have failed to understand how little leverage anyone has over Assad. On the one hand, Russia has pressured him to play by some of the international system’s rules now that he’s almost won, in the hopes that this will make it easier to reintegrate Syria and secure the aid it will need to rebuild. They have tried and failed to convince him to reconcile with the non-jihadi Syrian opposition, and have expressed anger at the regime’s willingness to let pro-regime militias loot and abuse civilians.
In private, American diplomats and analysts have said they think that Russia doesn’t want to be implicated in more of Assad’s war crimes by taking part in another scorched-earth offensive. Furthermore, they have told me that if Putin wants to force Assad to seek a political solution in Idlib, he has the power to do so.
Once the regime’s offensive in Idlib begins in earnest, Russia won’t withhold its vital military support. It will behave the same way it did in the winter of 2016, when it decried some of Assad’s tactics during the drive to retake Aleppo, while providing indispensable airpower. Many of Assad’s war crimes are Russia’s as well, and Russia needs to be part of Assad’s victory no matter what shape it takes. “This festering abscess needs to be liquidated,” the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said of Idlib in August. He described the province as “the last hotbed of terrorists … who are trying to hold the civilian population hostage as human shields.”
Of course, it’s always possible that Russia really is tired of Assad’s excesses, and that it doesn’t share Iran’s agenda in Syria. But it’s also possible that Russia is willing to tolerate multiple agendas in Syria so long as the world considers it a pivotal regional player. Russia can wag its finger at the Syrian regime, counseling restraint or compromise, but Moscow’s suggestions smack of rhetoric rather than policy. Putin might threaten to ground his bombers, but he’s unlikely to do so. In the end, Assad will stick to his winning strategy and Russia will be in no position to abandon the alliance. Putin needs his outpost in the Levant, and he will back Assad no matter what he does.
Ultimately, Russia has played a central role in undermining the international system and promoting the view that nations with military might can behave with impunity in their spheres of influence (as Russia did in Crimea and Assad has done in the Levant). Putin has joined forces with Assad to make a mockery of established norms like the taboo against chemical weapons, as part of a wider campaign to discredit international law and the viability of the United Nations.
Russia now seems poised to achieve its goals in the Syrian conflict—in large part because they never hinged on establishing a just or thriving Syria, only on a viable and friendly regime. The United States hoped first that Russia would embroil itself in a quagmire in Syria, and then that Putin would at least stop Assad from destroying Syria in order to reimpose control. On both counts, the United States and its allies deceived themselves.
When the carnage is over, America will survey the wreckage, wondering once again why the world did nothing to stop what seemed like an avoidable massacre of innocents. Perhaps it’ll finally grasp that when violent autocrats like Assad spell out their plans to kill and dominate, they mean what they say.