While it became commonplace years ago for Western diplomats to claim that “there is no military solution” to Syria’s civil war, notes Alexander Bick, Vladimir Putin has disproved the claim by helping Bashar al-Assad defeat the opposition forces in much of the country. Yet Moscow still confronts serious obstacles to achieving a lasting political settlement, and there are indications that the Kremlin is growing frustrated with Assad. Bick writes:
The challenges for Russia are daunting. The first is military: Turkey and the United States stand in the way of a complete victory, leaving a major concentration of hardened fighters and extremists in Idlib province, close to Russia’s Hmeimim airbase, and denying the government access to oil and gas resources in the east. While the future of the U.S. military presence is uncertain, Turkey’s military build-up suggests it is planning to stay. At the same time, an insurgency is brewing in the south, an area in which Russia was deeply involved in a series of de-escalation agreements and where Russian military police continue to patrol.
Politically, Assad has once again dug in his heels, undermining even the modest aspirations of the UN-led process to reform Syria’s constitution that Russian officials initially touted as an important step on a “long road” to peace.
[But] on balance Putin’s intervention in Syria continues to look to many Russians, and others, like a major success. The military threat to Assad’s rule is over. Russia has tested and found new markets for its weapons systems. Its relationships with Iran, Turkey, Israel, and the Gulf states have all deepened, and its prestige in the region has been greatly enhanced. Nevertheless, it is hard to see where further gains will come from, and there may be heavier costs if the situation deteriorates further.
[But] for the time being, Assad and Russia still need one another. It may be that Moscow is prepared to accept Syria as a failed state in which Russia can continue to act as an arbiter among regional and international powers, while waiting for opportunities to emerge in the future.