They are uncomfortable partners who do not always see eye to eye. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin will soon have a permanent link via the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Co-operation between the two, whether in Eastern Europe or further afield, has taken on new significance, most recently when they met on Saturday to discuss who will fund Syria's reconstruction.
Mr Putin was keen to play the refugee card, claiming EU funding to rebuild Syria will displace the issue as they return home. But the real question remains: to what will they be returning? Syrian civilians have no guarantees of safety while their future lies in the hands of self-serving regional and international players.
Even as the Syrian regime has begun issuing death certificates for the missing and imprisoned – many supposedly killed by heart attacks – airstrikes are still raining barrel bombs on terrified civilians in the last rebel stronghold of Idlib. Yet the slow creep of political transition is already in the air and as Mr Putin further entrenches himself as Mr Al Assad’s main sponsor, it seems inevitable that whatever solution is reached in next month’s four-way summit, he will sit at its heart.
After calling for his removal, European powers and the US seem resigned to accepting a role for Mr Al Assad in Syria’s transition. That is a tragedy for the Syrian people, who have endured countless assaults for seven years from regime bombs and chemical weapons.
Whatever the future holds, the stabilisation and reconstruction of Syria will require enormous investment. The UN’s Arab agency ESCWA has put the cost of damage to infrastructure at $388 billion. Last weekend the US cancelled plans to spend $200 million on stabilisation of areas cleared of ISIS militants, a sum that has been met by other countries, among them Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Nevertheless, America’s retreat from Syria will further empower the likes of Russia and Turkey. From here, it is not clear what the political endgame in Syria will look like. One can only hope fervently that it places ordinary Syrians at its very heart.