In the resort town of Sochi, on the Black Sea coast, Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed a possible exit strategy from Syria with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Today's meeting reinforces the urgency with which Russia is trying to extricate itself from the situation it has become mired in. One of the topics up for discussion was the implementation of de-escalation zones — or so-called safe zones — in Syria, part of a proposal to advance the political negotiations on ending the ongoing conflict. Elsewhere in the region, however, Syrian rebels walked out of peace talks in the Kazakh capital of Astana on May 3, spoiling efforts to get Syrian belligerents to discuss a potential solution to the conflict. The move highlights the difficulties Russia is facing — and just how unlikely the Kremlin is to succeed in its plan of making a smooth departure.
Russia's intervention in Syria, operating alongside Iran in support of Syrian loyalist forces, has succeeded in several ways. For one, Russia's involvement stabilized the battlefield and restored the advantage to Syrian troops. Furthermore, its entry into the conflict not only secured basing in the country but also provided a proving ground in which to season personnel and showcase Russian military hardware. Finally, the intervention has elevated Moscow's geopolitical heft, marking the Kremlin as a key player in the region.
Nevertheless, having played a major part in the conflict, Russia is now seeking to remove itself from the battlefield in a timely manner. For all the gains reaped from its involvement in the Syrian crisis, Moscow also understands the considerable costs — and, more important, that the advantages it has accrued thus far could easily be squandered over time, especially if the war drags on with no end in sight.
Moscow's relations with important rebel backers such as Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council have also been shaken, especially as Russia has intensified its support for Damascus. That support, moreover, has come at a price paid in blood and treasure. The rate of Russian military casualties has risen in recent months, largely as a result of its troops' increased involvement on the ground.
Perhaps more important, though, Moscow is well aware that the longer it remains stuck in Syria, the less able it will be to reach a favorable and self-serving agreement. Russia has long tried to use its position in the conflict as a means to exact larger concessions from the United States and Europe, forcing them to the negotiating table. Yet as the Khan Sheikhoun chemical weapons attack carried out by Syrian aircraft illustrates, events can quickly expose the limits of Russia's influence in the country. Meanwhile, Russian troops continue to find themselves facing determined opposition forces, and Moscow has been beset by the same dilemmas the United States has faced in the past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In an attempt to avoid the quagmire scenario, Russia shifted its position late last year. Evidence of this emerged first during talks with the United States, and again as Moscow sought to take advantage of a detente with Turkey, edging toward a negotiated political solution buttressed by cease-fire initiatives. But Turkey was unwilling and unable to persuade an increasingly radicalized rebel landscape into making the concessions Russia sought. And all the while, Russia's intensifying involvement in the conflict served to undermine Ankara's mediation attempts. Moreover, the Syrian government, along with Iran, remained skeptical of Russian initiatives and motives, proving more willing to pursue a military solution to a conflict that is far more critical to Damascus' and Tehran's core interests.
The reality is that a negotiated political solution to the Syrian conflict is more unlikely now than when Russia first began taking tentative steps toward an exit. Continued violence has undermined any faith left in the effectiveness of numerous declared cease-fires — truces that would have been a critical foundation to further negotiations. Meanwhile, rebel factions have grown more hard-line over time, displaying a remarkable resilience amid overwhelming firepower from the loyalists and their allies. It is increasingly apparent that even if the rebels were pushed back militarily, they would more likely resort to insurgent and guerilla tactics en masse than lay down their arms. At the same time, Russia’s ability to play a mediating role has been thoroughly weakened by its heavy air campaigns against rebel towns and villages — something the rebels prominently highlighted as they walked away from the Astana talks today.
Russia, along with Iran, has found itself stuck in an enduring conflict with no easy exit. Even as Moscow continues to ponder its escape, any negotiated settlement must ultimately serve the Kremlin's best interests, an objective that is proving increasingly difficult to achieve. Unable to entirely abandon Damascus and equally unwilling to give up its interests in Syria, Moscow's role in the dispute could hurt rather than help its attempts to improve critical relationships with nations such as the United States, Germany and Turkey. Just as the tides of war can turn on the battlefield, Russia's fortunes have changed in Syria, and not for the better. And as the Russian and Turkish presidents conclude their meeting in Sochi today, one question surely remains for the Kremlin: What is the viable endgame?