Five years of political capital, over a million tonnes of weapons, tens of billions of dollars, Russia’s role as both dominant regional presence and rising global force – these are all at stake if Vladimir Putin abandons Syria’s leader.
This is the reckoning faced by the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, as he travels to Moscow to try to prise the Russian president away from his support of Bashar al-Assad in the aftermath of last week’s nerve agent attack on Khan Sheikhun.
Ahead of the first high-level summit between Russia and the US since the election of Donald Trump, hopes have been raised that the atrocity could be a catalyst for change in a country destroyed by war and failed by global politics.
Those hopes, however, are almost certain to be dashed. Throughout the conflict, and especially since the Kremlin doubled down on its support for Assad in September 2015, Russia has pursued a win-at-all-costs strategy, which has regularly defied the bounds of modern warfare and edged Assad’s regime towards a winning position on the battlefield.
Ruthless means have justified an end that Putin sees as being closer than ever. Since the chemical attack last Tuesday, blamed on Assad’s air force by the US, Britain, France and Syria’s opposition, Russia has given the regime cover. Both sides co-ordinated a response and stuck to it, blaming an al-Qaida stockpile for the carnage, despite no evidence in the town of Khan Sheikhun that any such thing existed there.
Rather than moderate its stance, Russia has dug in further, deploying diplomats to claim Washington is in bed with terrorists and mobilising state-run troll factories to shape the narrative – with the same vigour as they showed before the US presidential poll in November.
There is no mood in Moscow to concede any ground on Syria to the US – and a calculation that Tillerson won’t be pushing too hard anyway. Tillerson’s claim that Russia has “failed its commitment to the international community”, and the US belief that Moscow has been lax in supervising the withdrawal of Syria’s stockpiles of sarin, are likely to be tabled at the meeting on Wednesday.
Yet aside from intelligence that Tillerson may choose to declare in private, the Trump administration appears to have little leverage. The sarin strike, and Trump’s quick decision to bomb the regime airfield from where the jet carrying sarin apparently took off, has been good news for the troubled US leader, allowing him to put at least some daylight between himself and Putin at a time when the pair’s relationship is under immense scrutiny.
It has also given the Trump administration the chance to recast itself as a protector of global values, something the president had steadfastly eschewed in favour of homegrown US interests in his inaugural address in January.
A view remains strong around the region that the US strike may have surprised Putin and shown that the new US leader is more unpredictable than Assad thought, but that Syria was just a strongman moment – a chance for the newcomer to take a stool in the saloon.