Russia’s military maneuvers in Syria are already having political consequences.
Up to now, the West described Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad as part of the problem, and both Berlin and Washington sought his ouster in order to resolve the country’s Syria crisis.
Now a change in attitudes is looming. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has indicated that talks with the Damascus dictator are essential, adopting a similar line to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Many actors must be involved, said Ms. Merkel last week at an E.U. summit, and “that includes Mr. Assad, but others as well” such as Iran or Saudi Arabia.
It is a shift that could pave the way for ending Russia’s international isolation over Ukraine, due to its close ties with the Assad regime.
On Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama is meeting with Mr. Putin in New York, where both are attending the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly. It will be the first time the two men have met in two years.
Russia has been shunned by the West since annexing Crimea last year and due to its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Yet it could now play a key role in ending the Syrian conflict, which began in 2011 and has seen more than 200,000 Syrian killed.
Mr. Assad, who has been accused of indiscriminately killing civilians when bombing rebel-held areas, now only controls a fraction of the country. Much of the rest is under the control of the terrorist group, Islamic State. Around four million Syrians have fled abroad, most are in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, although increasing numbers are making their way to Europe.
That refugee crisis has increased the resolve in the West to do push for an end to the war there.
And Moscow could play a key role.
On Sunday, the U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry, met with his counterpart, Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. The two men had a “very thorough exchange of views on both the military and the political implications of Russia’s increased engagement in Syria,” a senior U.S. official told reporters after the meeting.
Mr. Putin is expected to use his address to the U.N. General Assembly today to try to restore Russia’s status as a major global power.
“He will cast Russia as a force with whom world leaders would be advised to cooperate rather than oppose, implicitly and probably explicitly criticizing the U.S. approach to his regime,” wrote Otilia Dhand, of Teneo Intelligence in London, in a note on Monday.
On Sunday night, Mr. Putin criticized the U.S. efforts so far to end the Syrian conflict.
He said Moscow, which this month sent tanks and warplanes to a Russian military base in Syria, was itself trying to create a “coordinated framework” to resolve the conflict.
“We would welcome a common platform for collective action against the terrorists,” Mr. Putin said in an interview with American broadcaster CBS.
The Russian president described the U.S. support for rebel forces in Syria as illegal and ineffective and said Mr. Assad should be included in any international efforts to fight Islamic State.
“We support the legitimate government of Syria,” he said. “And there is no other solution to the Syrian crisis than strengthening the effective government structures and rendering them help in fighting terrorism.”
“We support the legitimate government of Syria. And there is no other solution to the Syrian crisis than strengthening the effective government structures and rendering them help in fighting terrorism.”
He added that Russian troops in Syria would not be deployed for combat.
However, it is clear that Russia is massively building its military presence in Syria. It recently dispatched 28 fighter jets, 15 military helicopters, at least two air defense batteries, surveillance drones, arms depots and accommodation facilities for several hundred soldiers. Last week, six tanks, 15 howitzers and 35 armored personnel carriers were also transported to Syria.
The Syrian air force used Russian fighter jets to attack ISIS positions in Aleppo, according to the Syrian monitoring center for human rights, which is close to the opposition.
Deploying the fighter jets shows how deeply Mr. Putin wants to engage in the future. Some of the fighter planes could support ground troops of pro-Assad forces.
The deployment of four SU-30 jets, to control air space, also has political dimensions. A no-fly zone over Syria cannot be put into effect without Russian agreement, said former Israeli military speaker and Russian specialist Andrey Kozhinov.
That could lead to conflicts with Ankara, as Turkey tries to set up a “safe haven” without terrorists in Syria. But Russian ground troops might not be deployed, Moscow sources say. Initially, at least, only consultants and trainers would be used.
By engaging more in Syria, Mr. Putin hopes to free himself from the isolation brought by the Ukraine crisis, said Paul Salem of the Middle East Institute in Washington. He wants to end the U.S. power monopoly in the region.
Mr. Putin’s presence in Syria also shows that Moscow is not just a regional power in eastern Europe, but can set the tone far beyond – as it did during the Soviet era.
The Russian arms buildup in Syria, meantime, is a new challenge for Mr. Obama, who hopes to avoid more conflict with Moscow, say U.S. commentators. With his military presence, Mr. Putin is demanding a say in resolving the conflict, and wants to help Mr. Assad retain power, at least in the shell state he still controls.
Mr. Putin, however, also wants more. Since 1973, when Egypt threw Soviet advisors out of the country, Moscow tried in vain to gain a foothold in Syria. The regime, however, did not allow more than a small supply base at Syria’s Mediterranean port of Tartus.
Now Mr. Assad is dependent on Russia’s help and gratefully accepts Mr. Putin’s anchor. His own army can barely defend the port city of Latakia, power center of the Alawites, from rebel assaults. Without the support of Iranian troops and Hezbollah militia, Mr. Assad is not even in a position to hold his capital Damascus. The area that Mr. Assad controls has shrunk about 18 percent of the country this year alone.
But Mr. Putin’s engagement in Syria could lead to further escalation of the conflict, fears Mr. Salem. Iran – which still sees the United States as “the great Satan,” even after the nuclear deal – also considers Mr. Putin to be its friend.
Nonetheless, in both Europe and the United States, the idea that peace in Syria can only be achieved with Mr. Putin’s help is gaining traction.
The European Union’s current sanctions against Russia run out at the end of the year. Increasingly in Berlin, there are voices arguing that Moscow has made progress in implementing the Minsk ceasefire in Ukraine.
Now, the refugee crisis has prompted more calls for an improvement of relations.
“We will have to change our relationship with Russia,” said economy minister and vice chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, on Friday. Europe can’t keep up sanctions on Russia forever and at the same time ask Russia for help, said Mr. Gabriel, who is also the leader of the Social Democrats.
However, Ms. Merkel wants to dispel the notion that Moscow can trade cooperation in Syria for an easing of sanctions over Ukraine.
Of course Russia is important for a resolution of the Syrian conflict, her chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, said in an interview published on Sunday. “That does not mean, however, that our position on the Ukraine question has changed. We cannot be blackmailed,” he told Der Tagesspiegel daily
Ms. Merkel met with the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, on the fringes of the U.N. General Assembly on Sunday, to discuss the next meeting between Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France this coming Friday.
According to German government sources, the pressure on Moscow will be maintained until the Ukrainian separatists implement the Minsk Agreement.
In Washington there is even less of an appetite to ease sanctions. The Americans are mistrustful of the fact that the Russians are arming Mr. Assad. And Mr. Obama does not want to be accused of appeasement by easing the pressure on Moscow.
There is also skepticism in Brussels about any easing of sanctions.
“It is wrong and irresponsible to always be throwing the end of sanctions into the debate,” said Rebecca Harms, a German member of the European Parliament who is the deputy chair of the Greens group.
“The arbitrary questioning of the sanctions, such as from Gabriel, undermines the trust that the people in Ukraine and Eastern Europe have in European politics,” she told Handelsblatt.
“The necessary talks with Vladimir Putin on Syria and IS cannot lead to letting him out of his commitments to the Minsk Accord,” she argued.
Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, the deputy president of the European Parliament and a member of Germany’s center-right Free Democrats agreed.
“The lifting of economic sanctions against Russia without meeting the conditions of the Minsk Accord would send the wrong signal,” he said.
“Ukraine and Syria cannot be lumped together.”
Pierre Heumann is Handelsblatt’s Israel correspondent. Matthias Brüggmann is head of the paper’s foreign desk. Moritz Koch in Washington, Thomas Ludwig in Brussels and Klaus Stratmann in Berlin contributed to this piece. Siobhán Dowling, an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition, also contributed to the piece. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com.