MOSCOW — Vladimir Putin is seizing on President-elect Donald Trump’s pledge to reverse U.S. policy on Syria to press for a military victory that could mark Russia’s return as a great-power rival in the wider Middle East.
With Trump vowing to focus on defeating Islamic State rather than on arming militias fighting Syrian leader Bashar Assad’s forces, Putin is moving decisively to oust rebels from Aleppo, their last major stronghold. Just days after Trump’s election last month, Putin and Assad resumed their aerial assault on the erstwhile Syrian commercial capital, turning a potential stalemate into what may become the Kremlin’s biggest success in the region in decades.
Putin’s advance, backed by Iran, is already paying diplomatic dividends. NATO-member Turkey is helping Russia bypass the U.S. by negotiating a cease-fire directly with insurgents. And last month, Egypt, the biggest recipient of American military aid after Israel, declared its support for Syria’s army. Russia is also preparing to forge a postwar transition that will keep Assad in power, contradicting the cornerstone of current White House policy.
“Trump’s election opens a new page that can put an end to this bloody war,” Randa Kassis, a Syrian political opposition leader who is poised for a role in a potential power-sharing deal brokered by Putin, said by phone from London.
Kassis, who has been ignored by the Obama administration because of her close ties to the Kremlin, met with Donald Trump Jr. in Paris in October before flying to Moscow for talks with Putin’s Mideast envoy. Trump’s transition team didn’t respond to emailed requests for comment, but confirmed the meeting with Kassis in the French capital to The Wall Street Journal.
Trump said during the campaign that the U.S. has “bigger problems than Assad” and that as president he’d “bomb the hell” out of Islamic State. He said he’d coordinate the effort with Putin, something the Obama administration has so far refused to do.
Leonid Reshetnikov, a retired Foreign Intelligence Service general who now heads a Kremlin advisory group, said officials in Moscow expect the U.S. and Russia will work together to “wipe out terrorists” in Syria and Iraq. Russia, for its part, will use its influence with Assad to ensure the “moderate” opposition has a role in a new government, he said by phone.
Putin on Sunday said the global structure of power is rebalancing after attempts to create a “unipolar world” failed. He told Russian television that Trump is a “smart person” who will adjust to being the leader of a great nation.
Trump has also said he’d consider lifting sanctions imposed over Putin’s policies in Ukraine. If he pushes ahead with rapprochement, though, he’ll face formidable resistance from the security and foreign policy apparatus in Washington, as well as senior members of his own party, according to Thomas Graham, a White House adviser on Russia under President George W. Bush.
Putin isn’t waiting for Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration to press his advantage in Syria’s civil war, which has lasted almost six years, killed an estimated 300,000 people and displaced half the prewar population of 22 million.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last week in Turkey that Russia will continue its campaign to dislodge “terrorists” holed up in Aleppo, which is about 40 miles south of the Turkish border. On Monday, he said Moscow was in talks with Washington on providing an exit route for rebels in the city, dismissing a proposed cease-fire as a “provocative step.”
Russian and Syrian forces paused their assault of the city in October amid international outrage over the casualties being inflicted on the several hundred thousand civilians still trapped there. Western leaders including French President Francois Hollande and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson have said Russia’s actions there may have been tantamount to war crimes.
“The Russians are rushing to create a fait accompli on the ground before Trump gets to the White House,” said Bassma Kodmani, a leader of the High Negotiations Council, a Syrian political group supported by countries including the U.S., Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Russia and the Assad regime view the fall of Aleppo as “the final military solution,” but the fighting won’t end there, it will just morph into guerrilla warfare, Kodmani said by phone from Paris.
Assad’s military, backed by Russian firepower and Iranian-trained militias, has retaken about 60 percent of the terrain held by rebels in the eastern part of Aleppo in the past two weeks. They should regain control of the whole city within a month or two, according to Konstantin Kosachyov, who heads the international affairs committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament.
Another Russian senator, Ilyas Umakhanov, who has met with Assad in Damascus and recently returned from talks in Tehran, said gaining “a decisive military edge” in Syria now is the best way to achieve peace in the future.
“Then there will be more willingness for a peaceful settlement from the U.S. and regional powers,” Umakhanov said in an interview in Moscow.
Konstantin Malofeev, a businessman and Putin ally who has been involved in back-channel negotiations with Turkey, said there won’t be any political settlement that doesn’t cement Assad’s grip on power.
Putin’s Syria game is intricate, involving not only Turkey, where President Tayyip Erdogan is still reeling from July’s failed military coup, but also Saudi Arabia and Iran, bitter enemies who are backing competing factions. Still, Putin continues to find ways to strengthen Russia’s hand in the region.
President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt, the most populous Arab country, ended years of fence-sitting on the war last month in declaring his support for Assad’s forces. That position puts him at odds with Saudi Arabia, a major benefactor of Egypt, but aligns him with other Arab states such as Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon and Tunisia.
“For the first time since the beginning of the anti-Assad rebellion in 2011, a series of geopolitical, military and political shifts are favoring the regime and its ability to emerge victorious,” Ayham Kamel, director of Middle East and Africa analysis at New York-based Eurasia Group, said in a research note.
Syria is just part of Putin’s goal in the Middle East, which is to regain the clout the Kremlin had before the Soviet Union collapsed a quarter century ago.
Last week, for example, Putin played a key role in persuading the Saudis and Iranians to set aside their differences and agree on OPEC’s first cut in oil output in eight years. And in Libya, he’s been forging ties with a powerful military leader, General Khalifa Haftar, who is seeking Russia’s help in fighting Islamic militants.
Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria who is now a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said Russia is now “a factor” in Iraq, too, mainly due to the counterterrorism center Putin established in Baghdad last year to share intelligence with Iranians and Iraqis.
“For 20 years, people basically ignored Russia on the Middle East,” Ford said. “The Russian role in the region now will certainly increase.”