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Options in Syria: What will Russia Decide?

Russia’s options in Syria are poor. While Vladimir Putin intervened to save his client Assad and Russian access to warm-water ports, it is beginning to look as if air power won’t do the job for Russia any more than it will for the U.S. – and the Russians are using much higher volumes. In addition, it appears that Russia will suffer now from pushback, the first incident of which might have been the jetliner downed over Sinai.What can Putin do? Cutting a deal with Saudi Arabia may be the least of several not-very-good options.

Putin’s goal was initially to stave off the imminent collapse of the Syrian regime. Assad’s army was suffering from large-scale defections, and Iran and Hezbollah were proving to be less than capable foot soldiers. (As a reminder, the Iranians were poor soldiers in the field during the Iran-Iraq war and consequently turned to asymmetric warfare in the late 1980s.) The Russians have hinted that Iran made repeated requests for intervention. Syria likely asked for help and – minimally – approved and facilitated Russian aircraft, pilots and support personnel coming into the country.

The Russian intervention brought a greater degree of professionalism to the fight. Russian pilots are more skilled than their Syrian counterparts and more proactive. But while the Russians have taken over the air war, there was no opposition by Russia to two recent Israeli air strikes (one at the Damascus airport) presumed to be against warehouses of long-range missiles from Iran destined for Hezbollah.

This suggests that the Russians differentiate between their geostrategic objectives and Iranian objectives that prioritize building up rocket forces against Israel. Right now the Russians need the Iranians and Hezbollah to do the dirty work on the ground; but the Russians don’t need them to stir up Israel. Israel’s Prime Minister has been it absolutely clear: Israel will not stand by when its security is threatened, and while it has no interest in intervening in Syria (other than providing humanitarian assistance at the border), it will take action against Hezbollah, Iran or Syria whenever they introduce weapons that threaten Israel, or carry out an attack that crosses into Israeli territory for any reason.

Putin’s options look something like this:

Option 1. Stay the course and protect the Assad government against both the non-ISIS jihadis and ISIS. This would be consistent with Putin’s public statements that Assad is the legitimate governing authority in Syria and the government had to be preserved. While the U.S. preferred to think that meant “preserved from ISIS,” the fact is that both ISIS and non-ISIS jihadis want Assad out and he fights both. Since a real defeat or capitulation of either group is unlikely, Option 1 amounts to staying and fighting at some level for a long time.

Option 2. Make a deal with the United States and the Europeans. Putin has been trying to make a deal from the beginning – having clearly said Assad’s presence in the long term is not mandatory. Recently this has evolved into a modified offer: a transitional government with Assad or a replacement for 18 months, followed by an election. The recent G-20 Summit featured important talks that seem to be heading toward a compromise that would lead to an 18-month transition, but without any agreement on the fate of Assad.

The biggest problem with Option 2 is that the actual combatants don’t want the deal. Non-ISIS jihadists have flatly rejected it, and there is no reason to think they will change their minds. ISIS, of course, wouldn’t deign to comment. So, while it might be possible to force Assad out, it would have little impact on the fighting except insofar as it means the Iranians and Hezbollah are unlikely to stay. Russia may hang onto its bases on the Mediterranean coast. This would amount to a Sunni victory and a Shiite defeat, but it would enhance the position of ISIS – to the dismay of the U.S. and its Sunni allies.

Option 3. Create two Syrian states: a Jihadi state and an Alawite one. Such a partition could be very attractive, since the possibility of reaching any compromise between Sunni and Alawite factions appears out of the question. This is a variation on Option 2 and has the same flaw: ISIS. An expansion of the ISIS “caliphate” is not in the interest of any of the external players, including Saudi Arabia and Jordan or the United States.

Banking on the non-ISIS jihadis to secure Syria from ISIS AFTER partition is conceivable, though not likely. Non-ISIS jihadis are, first and foremost, anti-Assad and anti-Shiite. Secondarily, they are a lesser fighting force than ISIS. Pressure from Saudi Arabia, the key to their funding, and training and equipment from the U.S. and Sunni allies, along with Russian bombing confined to ISIS might produce a force prepared to wrest its portion of Syria from ISIS.

Guarantees are crucial in this situation, and the U.S. is ill placed to offer any.

For all the caveats, however, Putin could be very interested in Option 3. There are some signs that a Russian-Sunni realignment could be in the works.

The Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, has held highly productive meetings with Putin in Sochi on the Black Sea. A number of agreements were reached for oil, military purchasing, investment, counter-terrorism and the upgrading of political relations.

Egypt is buying the Mistral ships from France that the Russians had previously ordered, but the delivery of which was blocked over the European Ukraine sanctions. France compensated the Russians for the ships, and the Egyptian purchase is underwritten by Saudi Arabia. In addition, it is likely that Egypt will buy Russian Kamov helicopters for the Mistral, again backed by Saudi funding.

King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, King of Saudi Arabia, is planning a visit to Moscow before the end of the year and of course he was present at the G-20 Summit, as was Putin, Cameron and Obama.

There are many reasons for the shift in attitude by the conservative Arab countries, starting with their attitude toward and fear of Iran. With weak and unsure U.S. leadership, Saudi Arabia, the emirates and Kuwait need an insurance policy and it seems Russia could be one for them. The Russians have signaled their interest in improving strategic cooperation, and Russia’s economic interests are well served by arms deals.

If the current talks, in which the U.S. and Russia are the key players, fail to result in a deal, the next best thing for Russia is to try and sort out the mess with the Saudis and the other conservative Arab states. The groundwork appears to be underway and, with the right confluence of characters and interests, Option 3 may start to look achievable.