Despite Military Alliance, Putin and Assad Retain Chilly Personal Relationship

putin-assad-meeting

In the winter of 2012, when the civil war in Syria had already consumed tens of thousands of lives, Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president, sounded dismissive of Syria’s beleaguered leader, Bashar al-Assad, and unconcerned about his future. Mr. Assad, he said, acidly, had spent more time courting leaders in European capitals than he ever had in Moscow.

“We are not that preoccupied with the fate of Assad’s regime,” Mr. Putin said then.

Three years later, the two presidents have bound themselves together in an alliance that reflects not only the urgent priority of salvaging the crumbling central government in Syria, but also each man’s eroded standing on the international stage.

Mr. Putin’s military has forcefully intervened to shore up Mr. Assad’s government in its struggle against an array of insurgents, but, even as Mr. Assad flew secretly to Moscow on Tuesday night for a meeting to assess the fighting in Syria, the chilly personal relationship between the two men has not changed, according to officials, diplomats and analysts.

By all accounts, the two leaders remain distant and wary of each other. The Kremlin in particular has been frustrated by what it sees as Mr. Assad’s arrogance and, at least until recently, his unwillingness to bend to Russia’s wishes, on issues like jump-starting peace talks in Moscow this year and freeing dissidents who might play a role in any political solution.

“It’s not personal, this whole thing,” Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, referring to Mr. Putin’s intervention. The highest priority of the Russians, he said, has been saving the central authority of the Syrian state as much as Mr. Assad himself in hopes of stemming the spread of chaos and, with it, the fertile ground in which the Islamic State can take root.

“To them, Assad is not a sacred cow,” Mr. Trenin added. “The issue to them is to save the Syrian state, to prevent it from unraveling the way Libya unraveled, Yemen unraveled.”

That has given hope to those who want to see a negotiated end to the war in Syria and hasten the departure of Mr. Assad himself — something Mr. Putin has signaled he is prepared to accept, even as Russia has continued to lend diplomatic and now direct military action to support Mr. Assad’s government.

Others, though, remain skeptical.

“Not being wedded to Assad does not mean that they’re prepared to negotiate a way for him to go,” said a senior administration official in Washington who, like other officials in this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity per government protocol.

Mr. Assad’s visit to Moscow — reportedly aboard a Russian military aircraft and unannounced until he returned to Damascus — underscored how deeply dependent he now is on the assistance he is receiving from Russia and Iran, help that is showing signs of shifting the momentum on some fronts inside Syria but is far from enough to bring the war to a decisive end.

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SOURCE: STEVEN LEE MYERS and ANNE BARNARD 
The New York Times