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.
The worst may be yet to come in Syria.
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.