The Syrian Civil War is moving towards a stalemate with the government of President Assad regaining control of 60 percent of his territory. The U.S.-led coalition will continue to hold ground in the east and the Turks have made it clear they will not return Syrian territory around Idlib.
And Russian President Vladimir Putin is fine with all of that. He’s already managing similar conflicts like this in Georgia and Ukraine.
Other significant players in Syria, including Israel, the United States, Turkey, and the remaining Sunni Arab rebels, may likewise discover they’d be satisfied with this new reality. The clearest losers, by contrast, would be the Assad regime and Iran.
What are the indications Syria is moving in the direction of frozen conflict? Consider the recent visit by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Russia to meet with Putin. At the press conference following the meeting, Putin told reporters that, “Following the Syrian Army’s notable successes in fighting terrorism, and with the activation of the political process, the foreign forces based in Syria will start to withdraw from the country.” This seemed to hint that the Russian president wasn’t interested in assisting the Assad regime’s reconquest of the entirety of Syria. And absent the Russian air support that the Syrian military has relied on in major combat operations (including the siege of Aleppo and the destruction of rebel-controlled Eastern Ghouta), such reconquest would be impossible.
Some have speculated that Putin was referring only to the withdrawal of foreign forces opposed to the regime. In the past, Moscow has sought to differentiate between its own presence in Syria (at the invitation of the “legitimate” Syrian authorities) and the uninvited presence of other foreign elements. On this occasion, however, Russia’s Syria envoy, Alexander Lavrentiev, clarified that the president was referring to “all foreign military forces stationed in Syria, including American, Turkish, Hezbollah, and Iranian [forces].”
The Russian statement was followed by an angry response from Tehran. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi told reporters in Tehran that, “No one can force Iran to do anything. … As long as terrorism exists and the Syrian government wants, Iran will have presence [in Syria].” The dueling statements are just one indication among many of differences between Moscow and some of its allies about the future of Syria.
Iran has been pushing for the regime to attempt an assault on remaining rebel enclaves in southwest Syria. The arrival of Iran-supported units to the border, however, brings with it the possibility of a large-scale Israeli response. Russia has no interest in such an outcome, which could plunge Syria into a new war and threaten the gains the Assad regime has already made.
Putin it seems is content with the consolidation of his main ally in the Assad regime and continuing to work with both Turkey and Israel as well as the continuing undermining of the West’s influence in the area.
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