Embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s surprise visit to Moscow on Tuesday, announced only on Wednesday after he had returned to Damascus, was unlikely to have been meant as a photo-op. Washington’s angry reaction to Moscow’s welcome for Assad also points to the geopolitical reality that underpinned the Syrian strongman’s first overseas trip since the civil war began in 2011. If more than a quarter million Syrians hadn’t perished in the violence and about 11 million rendered refugees, it may have been possible to note the hilarious normity of a muscular Russian President Vladimir Putin shaking hands with an Assad who had come up for air.
Moscow’s message, instead, is quite serious: It was always a player in the Middle East, and after the commencement of Russian air and missile strikes against Syrian rebels, it has assigned itself a key role in devising any solution to the conflict. Assad’s short trip, in fact, adds to the message — while Moscow had, in recent months, indicated its willingness to consider a post-Assad political future for Syria, it has now renewed its confidence in the regime. The road to Damascus runs through Moscow and Assad must be a part of any interim plan. A grateful Assad, for his part, feels safe enough to travel — a confidence that, along with the regime’s recent military moves, the West sees as the sign of an emboldened Assad.
The US-led coalition’s allegation, denied by Moscow but supported by evidence, is that Russia is not quite targeting the Islamic State but all of Assad’s enemies. Yet, it can’t be denied that geography makes the IS a threat to Russia and American vacillation on Syria did lead to its rise. Moscow may persist in refusing to countenance a scenario minus Assad, but in welcoming him, it has pre-empted the West once more by perhaps signalling that it’s ready to start a diplomatic process alongside its military strikes.