Despite recently boosting its forces significantly in embattled Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin is now willing to allow the Syrian civil war to come to an end by easing Syrian President Bashar Assad out of power, according to a report from Bloomberg. Apparently officials from the U.S. and Russia, as well as diplomats from Saudi Arabia and Syrian opposition leaders, have been negotiating for some months on a plan that would see Assad step aside before elections next year.
The Bloomberg sources claim Russia and the U.S. are close to a breakthrough on a plan which calls for Assad to retire into a ceremonial role as interim head of state before elections in Syria here in a few months.
Syria and Russia have been allies for decades, and Putin has refused to consider earlier proposals calling for the ouster of Syrian strongman Assad. The sources argue that Russia’s position on Syria is evolving because of the increasing threat of the ISIS jihadists.
More on possible deal for ouster of Syria’s Assad
Syria three-year-long civil war has become a festering would in the Middle East, with the conflict spilling over into neighbors and leading to the rise of ISIS. The latest diplomatic efforts to end the civil war are as with hundreds of thousands of migrants are leaving the area seeking refuge in the EU.
ISIS has control of around half of Syria, while rebel militias backed by the U.S. and others are gaining ground. Only around 20% to 25% of the country remains in control of the Syrian government, says a senior Israeli defense official who spoke to the media. The government controlled areas, however, are those with the largest populations, including most major cities such as the capital Damascus.
According to the Bloomberg sources, diplomats from all sides have been discussing the best way to sideline Syrian President Assad since early this summer. They noted that Putin hosted Saudi King Salman’s son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed, in June. Saudi Arabia and Syria are long-time regional foes, while Russia is Assad’s most loyal ally. Apparently Russia has been engaged in a spate of diplomacy bringing important officials from several countries to Moscow for to discuss the situation.
Despite the word that interested international parties were currently in advanced negotiations, like almost every other aspect of the war in Syria, Russia’s policy goals are not straightforward.
“There’s a convergence on the threat of ISIS,” Paul Salem, a vice president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, noted in a phone recent phone interview. “This convergence wasn’t there when they last tried diplomacy two years ago.”
However, if Putin continues to boost military support for Assad, the rightfully suspicious Saudis will almost certainly respond by increasing their support to the Syrian rebels, says Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi commentator and ex-government adviser.
“The fact that the Russians are sending servicemen to Syria now proves that it’s not diplomacy, it’s war,” he said.
Based on public comments, Russia and the U.S. and its allies are far from on the same page regarding Syria. When asked last week if Russia would agree to Assad staying on in a ceremonial role, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that “only the Syrian people can decide the fate of Syria, not some outside countries.”
The Soufan Group, a U.S. security consulting firm operated by an ex-counter-terrorism official at the FBI, argues that Putin really wants to see the defeat of the Islamic State while maintaining influence in the Middle East, and is no longer committed to propping up a clearly weakening Assad.
Russia beefing up military forces in Syria
What Russia is really planning by ramping up military aid to Syria is not yet clear, but military analysts point out Syria Represents Russia’s only naval base outside of Europe and Asia Soviet Union. Key questions include if Putin is truly willing to see Assad out of power, and, if so, what will it take to persuade him to go.
The report also notes that U.S. intelligence believes that Russia will soon begin flying combat missions from its newly built airbase in Syria. It looks like maybe Putin thinks a beefed up Russian military presence will help Assad hang on or perhaps it’s just to give Putin more influence in the area when/if the Syrian government collapses.