Russia, Iran, and Turkey are acting as axis to ensure that Bashar Assad remains Syria's long-term leader.
That breaks with the demand of most Syrian opposition groups that Assad step down under any final status peace deal. The opposition detests Assad for his bloodletting since the Syrian civil war began in 2011. Still, if Russian President Vladimir Putin and company get their way, the opposition will be all out of luck.
On Tuesday, Putin met with Assad in Russia to discuss a negotiating strategy with which to confront Sunni and Kurdish rebel formations fighting the Syrian regime. Both men spoke about the pursuit of a just peace, but neither really meant it.
Instead, Putin believes he has the strategic initiative in Syria and that all others must yield to his diktats in any peace deal.
Assad seems equally confident that Putin will obstruct Saudi or U.S. efforts to protect Sunni or Kurdish interests. "We hope Russia will support us by ensuring the external players' non-interference in the political process," Assad said, "so that they will only support the process waged by the Syrians themselves."
While this is Assad in wonderland (Assad only remains in power thanks to the support of external actors Iran and Russia), his words evidence the likely axis strategy for upcoming peace talks. And with Putin due to meet Presidents Hassan Rouhani of Iran and Tayipp Erdogan of Turkey on Thursday, it seems clear that the four leaders will undertake a coordinated effort to achieve their various interests in Syria.
Here's what each actor wants:
As I explained recently, Erdogan has situated himself under Putin's leadership. In order to isolate and weaken the Kurds in northern Syria and Iraq, Erdogan is willing to follow Putin's orders and abandon the anti-Assad Sunni rebel groups he previously supported.
Iranian interests in Syria run deeper. Iran seeks a contiguous ground corridor between its territory and southern Lebanon with which to move personnel and supplies to the Lebanese Hezbollah. The Iranians also seem set on constructing military facilities on Syrian soil. Israel has warned these facilities are a red line issue, so escalatory risks are significant here.
Then there's Putin. The Russian leader wants continued access to the Mediterranean Sea via his military bases at Tartus and Latakia. More than that, however, Putin wants to make Russia the player that Middle Eastern nations must deal with. If he can secure Assad over the longer term, Putin knows he will be perceived by other regional states as a reliable kingmaker. In turn, Putin hopes those nations will buy Russian military equipment, invest in Russian business interests, and assist Russia in displacing American influence.
Assad, of course, wants to go back to the good old days when his regime was secure, his enemies were on the run, tourists enjoyed Damascus and Palmyra, and political opponents disappeared into gulags of torture and death. And Bashar wants us to forget the Assad family tradition of destroying cities.
How will the Syria-Russia-Iran-Turkey axis go about pursuing these agendas at peace talks?
By deception and false commitments.
The axis will begin by offering compromises towards power sharing and greater federalism in Syria's northern and eastern governates. This effort will be carefully calibrated to exploit already significant frictions and factionalism in the opposition blocs. But Assad will offer no commitment on a timeline to step down from power under a transition agreement.
At the same time, the axis is likely to challenge U.S. military forces operating north of the Euphrates river. The axis wants to see whether the U.S. is willing to resist these excursions. As our editorial underlined last Sunday, Trump must be ready to do so.
Finally, the axis will pledge to move towards elections. Those elections will be decided long before voters go to the polls, but once Assad is entrenched in power and the rebellion has collapsed, the axis knows it won't be called on its failures anyway.
For all these reasons, the U.S. and its allies cannot let the axis succeed. Unless Assad agrees to transition out of power and until anti-Assad communities in Syria are confident their rights will be protected under any peace deal, the fighting will continue. Indeed, many fighters will join jihadist organizations as acts of last resort. That will fuel the terrorist threat against the west.
Put simply, until the axis is ready to transfer real power to those Syrians it has brutally oppressed, the U.S. should not dance to Putin's diplomatic waltz.