Strategypage writes that Russia is floating the survival of Assad in the northwest:
Russia is also offering a plan to split Syria up and leave the Assads in control of their “heartland” (the area from Damascus to the coast.) This idea has proved to be very hard to sell.
Back in June, I speculated that Russia was about to intervene in Syria to preserve their position in the eastern Mediterranean (which also justifies their invasion of Ukraine to seize the Crimea base complex that exists to project power south):
I know I'm drawing a potential picture with virtually no dots and based on what I think the different parties would and can do.
An Assad secure in his northwestern corner of Syria is good enough for Putin who has alienated Europe to capture Crimea as a base to project naval power into the eastern Mediterranean Sea--which would be less valuable if Russia doesn't have a secure port in the eastern Mediterranean.
Perhaps the question of whether a rump Syria rather than a core Syria is good enough for Iran will be answered, as well.
In an update to that post, I also note Assad's threat to use chemical weapons to complement the Russian support, which might help keep enemies from following him to his Core or Rump Syria.
And of course, as I noted, Iran can accept Assad in control of just the northwest to keep a position capable of providing access to Lebanon to supply Hezbollah.
I've long felt that Russia could dispatch troops to help Assad hold his corner of Syria:
Marines in Tartus with a hefty naval visit would be a start. Money, fast delivery of lower tech training aircraft capable of ground attack, and oil would all help Assad survive in a smaller state.
If Russia wants to be really bold, they might send a regiment of paratroopers (Russia's only ready ground force) to hold positions along the smaller border with Turkey that would result, and deter direct Turkish intervention in the western part of Syria that would be the entirety of a Rump Alawite Syria or a Rump + Buffer Syria.
Indeed, a month ago Russia appeared to be telegraphing their intention to send troops to Syria:
Based on recent Russian commitments to Assad and Assad's admission that he has too few troops, could Russia throw caution to the wind and put troops into Syria to protect Assad in the northwest part of Syria by drawing a red line in front of the Turks to prevent them from using a safe zone in northern Syria as a base to defeat Assad?
And Russia, Syria, and Iran met this week to discuss Syria:
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem arrived in Tehran on Tuesday for talks with officials from allies Iran and Russia that are expected to focus on efforts to end the civil war in his country.
We'll see. It would be a big move to commit the relatively few decent Russian troops to Syria even in what is intended as a symbolic tripwire presence.
But I can totally see Putin throwing the dice just to throw the West off balance.
Yet I think Russia wants the prestige of saving a client that lacks the manpower to hold even a Core Syria based in the west rather than the casualties needed to do it:
Assad's ground forces are bleeding and staggering. Hezbollah is stretched providing shock troops for Assad. And can Iran really strengthen their Shia foreign legion fighting for Assad?
Where do more troops come from to fight the new threat to Damascus?
Perhaps if Russia intervenes to free up some Syrian troops, Assad could redeploy to the capital.
But the Russians don't want to send troops into a war. They just want a pageant to show off Putin's swagger on the world stage (See? We matter!). So they'd need a deal with Turkey that allows Turkey to enforce their safe zone in the north in a way that harms jihadi abilities to fight and survive in the north; while also reducing the chance of a direct Turkey-Syria clash.
But if Russia hopes to have a mostly symbolic presence in Syria that frees up Assad's troops to hold Damascus (which is otherwise beyond Assad's capacity to hold in addition to the Alawite homeland in the northwest) as Russia's proposal includes, it requires Turkey to hold the north to keep rebels--whether jihadi or not--from attacking into that Alawite homeland and giving Putin that victory in support of an ally in distress.
With America failing to stop Russia from taking over Crimea which looms over northern Turkey as a point to project power south; and with Turkey not living up to President Obama's hopes for being a "tame" Islamist partner in the region, can you really say that Turkey--notwithstanding its NATO membership--wouldn't make a deal with Russia to do just this to defend themselves so they don't have to fully rely on us?
Oh, and let's not forget that President Obama's nuclear deal with Iran will allow Iran to bankroll the entire effort to save Assad for Russia and Iran--in addition to not stopping Iran from going nuclear.
I hate fighting enemies who want to win rather than meekly accepting some oddly divined force of history that dooms them.