Putin Sees Path to Diplomacy Through Syria

THE NEW YORK TIMES

SEPT. 16, 2015

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Syrians in a destroyed section of Douma, east of Damascus. Russia has offered to hold talks with the United States on Syria. Credit Abd Doumany/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

LVIV, Ukraine — To much of the world, Syria is a scene of unending tragedy, but to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia it is a golden opportunity, a way out of the isolation he and Russia have endured since the West imposed sanctions over Ukraine — with the added bonus of wagging an “I told you so” finger at the White House.

His opening gambit to ingratiate himself with the West after a year of ostracism began with a singular gesture that Washington could hardly miss: dispatching a pronounced new flow of military hardware to Syria.

This week, Mr. Putin unleashed a diplomatic offensive, pushing to meet with President Obama, offering to hold military-to-military talks on Syria, and planning a big rollout for a Syrian peace plan when he speaks at the United Nations later this month.

The stakes for Mr. Putin are high — perhaps the highest in his career. The Kremlin has been on the defensive, diplomatically isolated after its adventures in Ukraine and battered economically by sanctions, low oil prices and a weak ruble that is cutting into living standards. Rapidly depleting the rainy day funds that have staved off financial disaster so far, Mr. Putin knows he needs to get back in the West’s good graces in a hurry, or at least change the conversation.

Syria provides an ideal vehicle for that, while also giving Moscow a significant role in the Middle East and promoting Mr. Putin’s long-term ambitions of re-establishing Russia as a player on the world stage.

“Putin dreams of the restoration of Russian power everywhere, not just in the former Soviet space,” Aleksei Malashenko, a military analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said in an interview. “The activity in Syria and around Syria means Russia is able to come back to the Middle East, not as a superpower, but as something that can balance the power of the West and the United States.”

Wednesday brought a new welter of developments surrounding Mr. Putin’s plan. In Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry said that Moscow had suggested holding talks between the United States and Russian militaries on Syria and the continuing buildup of Russian forces there. Mr. Kerry said the administration was considering the offer, adding that the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, had presented the talks as a way to coordinate with the Pentagon to avoid “unintended incidents.”

In Jerusalem, the office of the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, issued a statement saying that he plans to travel to Russia next week for talks with Mr. Putin about the stationing of Russian forces in Syria and the possible transfer of weapons to Israel’s enemy, Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group.

In Damascus, Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, gave a collective interview to six major Russian news organizations in which he echoed Mr. Putin’s proposals but gave them a domestic twist.

He called on insurgents fighting his government to join with his forces instead, to battle as allies against the Islamic State. Only after that group is defeated can there be a political solution to the war that has devastated Syria, Mr. Assad said in the interview broadcast on Wednesday.

“The political parties, the government and the armed groups that fought against the government, we must all unite in the name of combating terrorism,” Mr. Assad said.

The Syrian leader, whose forces now control only about a quarter of the territory of Syria, did not comment on the Russian military moves, and the Russian reporters did not ask him about attacks on civilians.

He did describe Russia as an impartial intermediary, however, a characterization that many of his opponents would consider laughable, given Russia’s support for the president, an important ally and longtime arms client. Many opposition groups, as well as key Western countries like the United States, have set his removal from office as the first step toward a political solution, but Russia has rejected that as a condition.

Mr. Putin is expected to speak at the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 28, his first such visit in a decade, and to use that global platform to emphasize the Syria strategy he has sketched several times already.

He has already said that he envisages a two-track effort involving an international coalition to defeat the Islamic State, as well as a renewed effort to forge a domestic political compromise among Syria’s many squabbling factions and bring them into the coalition. He has parried questions about the direct involvement of the Russian military in fighting.

As for Ukraine, it has settled down into the frozen conflict that many anticipated from the beginning. The lull in fighting in the east that took hold on Sept. 1 is expected to last at least through the end of the month when Mr. Putin speaks at the United Nations.

At the same time, Ukraine has virtually disappeared from its starring role in the mainstream, state-run Russian news media, which is now focused on Syria all the time.

Mr. Putin’s Syria proposal has put the West in something of a bind. While they have sought to isolate Russia over its annexation of Crimea and military meddling in Ukraine, Western capitals have been struggling to contain the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

The Obama administration has been “trying to sit on two chairs,” noted Konstantin von Eggert, an independent political analyst. It has been both slamming Russia over Crimea and eastern Ukraine, while saying it seeks to cooperate with Russia on the Iran nuclear deal, the Middle East and other issues.

If Mr. Putin manages to forge a coalition on Syria, it would be increasingly difficult for Washington to argue that the Kremlin deserves isolation. There is an inconsistency in the message, Mr. von Eggert noted, and “Putin always exploits those inconsistencies.”

Mr. Putin and his senior diplomats have said repeatedly in recent weeks that they warned the Obama administration that its policies in Syria would lead to disaster, and that they were determined to shore up Mr. Assad to avoid a repeat of places like Libya and Yemen after long-established authoritarian rulers were deposed.

“The situation was misjudged; it was allowed to deteriorate,” Vitaly I. Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, said in an interview. “How far it can go I don’t know. You recall in Washington they said Assad has two to four months to last.”

“This is something we share now with the U.S. government: They don’t want the Assad government to fall,” said the Russian ambassador. “They want to fight ISIL in a way that won’t harm the Syrian government. On the other hand, they don’t want the Syrian government to take advantage of their campaign against ISIL.”

Some analysts suggested that Mr. Putin would prevail in the end, because the overwhelming threat presented by the Islamic State would trump concerns over the future of Ukraine, Mr. Assad, or even of Russia gaining greater influence in the Middle East.

Mr. Churkin told reporters on Wednesday that Mr. Putin’s proposal had generated “great interest” and could well become the major focus of the gathering of world leaders at the United Nations during the last week of September.

Neil MacFarquhar reported from Lviv, Ukraine, and Andrew E. Kramer from Moscow. Reporting was contributed by Sophia Kishkovsky from Moscow; Somini Sengupta from the United Nations; Michael Gordon from Washington; Anne Barnard from Beirut, Lebanon; and Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem.

A version of this article appears in print on September 17, 2015, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Putin Sees Path to Diplomacy Through Syria.

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