Assad Comes to Daddy in Moscow
Syria’s embattled dictator Bashar al-Assad made a surprise visit to the Kremlin. No reporters in Russia’s state-controlled press were informed of his arrival on Tuesday night; it was only when Assad had already departed home for Syria that Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, informed journalists of the talks. Only afterwards were the photos and on-camera welcome by Putin released.
According to one U.S. diplomat who spoke to The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity, the U.S. embassy in Moscow was caught completely unaware of the trip. “The theories [for why Putin extended the invitation to Assad] are a) stick it to the West, b) show the West that Russia is the place to come for consultations with Assad—i.e. if you want a deal to get rid of this guy, you’ll need to come through us, or c) consultations before the Lavrov-Kerry-Saudi-Turkish trilats later this week.”
The latter refers to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s announcement, which coincided with Assad’s departure from Moscow, that he and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry are to meet in Vienna on Friday to discuss with their Saudi and Turkish counterparts the Syrian war. That war, in many ways, now consists of two separate “coalitions.” One is headed by Moscow—with a major assist from Iran—and designed to militarily support Assad’s badly attrited regime; the other is headed by Washington meant only to contain and weaken the Islamic State. Neither, as it turns out, has so far been terribly effective in achieving its objective.
“Assad’s public visit to Moscow to stroke Putin’s ego is not surprising given Moscow’s efforts to prop up the Syrian regime,” one U.S. intelligence official told The Daily Beast. “That said, it is interesting that Assad visited Moscow first—instead of Tehran—and that he left Syria in the midst of the regime’s largest counteroffensive in months.”
U.S. intelligence officials have previously assessed that the Assad regime is getting significant backing from Iranian ground forces, and that the support continues to grow, but that it’s not necessarily translating into victories. They think that while some tactical swings along the frontline might favor Assad’s regime in the near term, many provincial capitals occupied by his army remain under threat.
That may help explain Assad’s decision to be seen publicly aligning with Putin, who has supplied essential air cover to forces on the ground. The official characterized Assad’s Moscow visit as a publicity stunt that doesn’t bode well for the dictator’s future. “It only reinforces the notion that Assad has lost control of his country, and is now firmly under Putin’s thumb,” the official said.
“Should the regime’s offensive fail to dislodge opposition elements or suffer major setbacks, the blame will land on Assad’s shoulders,” the official added. “Putin is not one to bet on a losing horse, and Assad’s track record in Syria suggests the regime faces long odds of a military victory. At some point, Putin will have to decide on how far Russia will go to support one man.”
So what was discussed at the Kremlin in those few hours?
The Russian government has only released the footage and transcripts of an initial meet-and-greet between Putin and Assad. The bulk of their parlay took place at a dinner attended by the two and joined by Lavrov, Russian Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. That dinner reportedly went on for over three hours, and while a few photographs from it have been made public, nothing else from it has been.
During the initial exchange of pleasantries, Putin saluted his Levantine client for having faced “international terrorism…practically alone,” glossing over the increasingly sizable role played by Iranian fighters and Lebanese Hezbollah, both of which were directly militarily supporting Assad long before Russia intervened last month.
Indeed, Russia’s aerial campaign was closely coordinated with Iran’s security establishment. Russian military and intelligence officers are also running a joint command center with Iranian and Hezbollah equals out of the coastal province of Latakia, Assad’s ancestral home. Russia has recently constructed its own forward operating base at Basel al-Assad International Airport, capable of housing 2,000 military personnel, and adding to its longstanding naval port in the southern province Tartus, where it is also expanding (PDF) the
Hamidiyah Agricultural Airfield. Interestingly, and for reasons that may owe as much to optics as to security, it from was from Latakia that Assad was transported to Moscow.
Analysis of FlightRadar data, published on a Russian military aviation blog indicates that a Russian government-owned Il-62 airliner, fitted with a special communications array, arrived in Latakia on the night of October 19 and flew Assad to his meeting yesterday, taking a circuitous route through Iraqi and Iranian airspace, then over the Caspian Sea, bypassing Turkey altogether. Assad was thus airlifted by Russia out of his own country, and from an airport named for his deceased brother, no less—a fact that will no doubt contribute to Putin’s intended signal to the West that Damascus has gone from being a battered client state to wholly owned subsidiary in the Middle East.
Putin’s war in Syria underscores this newfound dependency, albeit without producing much by way of results. A recent analysis conducted by Reuters has found that four-fifths of all Russian sorties over the last three weeks have hit non-Islamic State targets. Many of these belong to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) of “moderate” anti-Assad rebels, vettered and armed by the Central Intelligence Agency. And while the FSA has lost terrain in Aleppo to the Islamic State, which has opportunistically exploited Russia’s air campaign by hitting the same targets simultaneously, despite a ferocious combination of air strikes, artillery barrages and ground assaults, the regime isn’t really winning.
In fact, Assad’s forces have continued to lose ground in the hills on the eastern fringes of Latakia, where Free Syrian Army rebels, armed with U.S.-supplied TOW anti-tank missiles have taken several new positions. Though Captain Basil Zimo, the commander of the FSA’s First Coastal Division, was killed in an air strike in the Jabal al-Akrad area of Latakia.
Where the Russian Air Force has devoted most of its firepower—in the central and western salient north of Damascus—Assad’s army has yet to seize any real battlefield advantage. In Hama, for instance, an offensive towards the rebel-held towns of al-Lataminah and Kafr Nabudah has won the regime little more than a handful of villages and many burnt out tanks, while moves on a small rebel enclave north of Homs remain similarly ineffective.