MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has won a reprieve from U.S. missile attacks for his ally Bashar al-Assad. Now he has to show he can bring Assad to heel.
While the United States has guardedly endorsed Putin’s proposal to have Syria cede its entire cache of chemical-weapons, the Russian leader now needs to prove skeptics wrong and persuade Assad to fully comply, analysts say.
“Putin is taking a considerable personal risk with all this,” Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said by email.
Putin is trying to bring to the table a man who Secretary of State John F. Kerry labeled a murderer and to show that his desire to re-establish Russia as a global diplomatic player extends beyond rhetoric.
Russia and Syria, now its only Arab ally, have had close ties since Assad’s father came to power in a bloodless coup in 1970. Russia maintains its only military base outside the former Soviet Union at Syria’s Mediterranean port of Tartus.
At the same time, Russian officials have privately complained about not having enough leverage over Assad to influence his behavior, according to a research paper published by the Carnegie Moscow Center in February. While Russia has supplied arms to Syria, it hasn’t been able to convince Assad to loosen his grip on power.
“If Putin’s move only allows Syria to play for time, he will lose prestige,” Volker Perthes, head of the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said by email. It would be a “big boost” to Putin and Russia if he manages to both avert a U.S. strike and persuade Assad’s people to negotiate a transition, he said.
The details of Putin’s proposal haven’t been made public, so it’s not clear how Putin expects to overcome the logistical challenges of locating all of Syria’s hidden and continually moving arsenal in the middle of a civil war that has raged for more than two years and left more than 100,000 people dead.
If any country can do it, though, it’s Russia, which has the largest stockpile of chemical weapons and therefore the most experience in managing them, said Ian Anthony, director of the Program on Arms Control, Disarmament and Nonproliferation at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Leonid Ivashov, a former head of the Russian General Staff’s international cooperation department, said that locating and destroying Assad’s entire arsenal of chemical weapons is “absolutely possible,” although the endeavor could take years.
“If Assad thinks Putin can guarantee his long-term survival then he may make some concessions,” Spyros Economides, a senior lecturer in international relations at the London School of Economics, said by phone. “It will mean a lot in the Middle East and internationally for Russia if Putin succeeds, and it will show the world that the U.S. is less powerful.”