It was reported last week that Russian troops had retreated in Bakhmut due to a “severe shortage of credible combat units.” Moscow rushed to deny the news. While Westerners are rejoicing in every Russian setback, they should be careful what they wish for. The last thing the West needs is for Russia to become desperate and to take desperate measures.
The Russians will not accept defeat. This is beyond Vladimir Putin or the Kremlin, it is about Russian national pride. They will take every measure to prevent defeat. Hence, a negotiated settlement is needed to end the war with the fewest casualties and least damage possible. Syria could be a gateway to such a settlement, as the West and Russia have the common goal of stabilizing the country. But there is of course one point of contention: Bashar Assad.
So far, the West’s policy toward Russia has been to isolate it. However, isolating Russia is unlikely to end the war. Moscow is finding creative ways to survive. It is looking to US competitors for alliances. It is now closer to China and is definitely closer to Iran. US allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkiye have remained neutral on Russia. They have not deemed it worthwhile to sever their ties with Russia to please an unreliable and whimsical partner.
Despite the confiscation of Russian funds in Western capitals, Russia seems to be able to survive. Germany plans to stop almost all Russian oil imports this year, with the broader plan to wean itself off the country’s gas by mid-2024. The EU has a similar plan. It wants to quit Russian fossil fuels by 2027. These are all efforts to isolate Russia instead of engaging with it. Nevertheless, Russia will find alternative buyers for its gas and will make friends in the East. The economic hardship will not push Russia to surrender.
So far, a settlement does not appear to be a possibility, as the trend is to isolate Russia rather than to engage. A settlement needs engagement and, for engagement to work, it needs confidence to be built. Today, there is a high amount of mistrust between the West and Russia. The issue is also complicated. The Ukraine dossier involves Crimea, the Donbas, Georgia, the status of NATO in Europe and many other complications.
An easier path to take would be to start engaging with Russia on Syria, for the simple reason that the long-term goal of both the international community and Russia is to stabilize Syria. Arab states are today engaging with Assad on a step-by-step basis in order to contain the influence of Iran and Turkiye in Syria. Despite its narrative, the US would tolerate this process if it led to Russian influence being diminished.
However, Assad is unwilling and incapable of making any changes. He does not even have the muscle to capture a drug dealer in the southwest of the country. Instead, the Jordanian air force had to do the job for him. Assad also has a track record of reneging on his promises. There is no reason for him to change his behavior now, hence the need to engage with the regional powers. And Russia is a main player that needs to be on board to stabilize Syria.
Syria could be a gateway to a settlement, as the West and Russia have the common goal of stabilizing the country.
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
Though Assad is Russia’s ally, Moscow knows he cannot stabilize Syria. Russia has clashed with Assad on several files. For example, during the battle for Aleppo, Moscow sent in the Chechen military police. It sent Sunni units to make sure the local population did not feel offended or aggressed. The units were tasked with stabilizing the city and ensuring that no homes were confiscated. However, Assad and the Iranian militias kept on conducting operations against the Russians. Ultimately, the Russians retreated because they did not want to confront Assad or the Iranians.
And in a 2018 initiative to encourage the return of refugees, Russia pressured Assad to issue an amnesty for those who had failed to report for conscription. Assad, in order to prevent the return of refugees, had issued a law, under which all males who turned 18 and did not report for conscription were subject to a jail term and a fine. This pushed those refugee families with boys that had reached that age while they were outside the country to stay outside. Despite the amnesty, Assad found creative ways to prevent people from coming back. Returnees were arrested on arbitrary and false charges. Hence, people were deterred from returning.
Another instance where Assad played the role of the spoiler was in Deraa, where he reneged on all his commitments as Russia’s effort to reconcile the regime and the rebels fell short of stabilizing the area.
Nevertheless, Russia has no one but Assad to protect its interests in Syria. If he goes, Moscow will lose all the investments it has made to protect its interests, namely its bases in Tartus and Hmeimim. So, if the West clinches a deal with Russia and treats it as an equal, this can be the first confidence-building step.
Though the Western frame of mind is against giving Russia any concessions and is driven by a zero-sum mentality, flexibility is needed, otherwise Ukraine is set for a long conflict with Russia — and, even worse, a more devastating war, in which Russia uses extreme measures. So, it is important to engage and Syria could be a relatively easy entry point. Also, a deal on Syria could save face for Putin. A deal that protects Russia’s strategic interests can encourage Putin to go for another deal, while telling his audience that he has finally come to terms with the West and that the West understands Russia cannot be humiliated.
The West should quickly engage with Russia and stabilize Syria, as this is a good entry point for the streamlining of other issues. However, the first step would be for the West to get rid of its zero-sum attitude when dealing with Russia.
• Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is president of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese nongovernmental organization focused on Track II.