TSG IntelBrief: Putin’s Syrian Gamble
September 22, 2015

Putin’s Syrian Gamble

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• Sensing an opportunity to both assist the Assad regime and boost Russia’s influence in the region, President Putin has moved decisively to change the status quo of the Syrian war

• The move appears to have caught the U.S. flat-footed in terms of responses that do not splinter the fragile regional coalition against the Islamic State

• Putin is scheduled to speak at the United Nations General Assembly in New York next week; addressing the war in Syria is likely to be high on his agenda

• The Russian action challenges both the fact and the theory of U.S. dominance in the Middle East.

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Despite the very public expressions of U.S. concern, Russia has stepped boldly into the Syrian conflict in a way that both rejects and complicates U.S. policy. As the United States pursues a difficult balance between opposing the Syrian regime politically and attacking one of its principal enemies militarily, Russia has declared the so-called Islamic State the main enemy and has cast the Assad regime as an essential partner in ensuring its defeat. Russia guesses that the conflicting objectives of all sides in the Syrian conflict—and of their international backers—will ensure that there can be no political solution for the foreseeable future. It is therefore taking advantage of this stalemate to increase the chances of Assad’s survival by inserting a significant military presence, while at the same time boosting its own influence in the broader Middle East.

This has left the U.S. with little choice but to invite Russia to coordinate its actions with the international coalition against the Islamic State, so allowing Syria—at least by proxy—to join the coalition as well. It is a clever move by Russia given the strained relations with the West over Ukraine, and has caught the U.S. flat-footed. The danger for President Putin, however, is that Russia may be drawn deeper into the Syrian civil war—a danger that has greatly influenced the United States’ strategy of partial engagement. With its 1979 Afghan intervention receding from popular memory, and without the legacy of a failed Iraq campaign to overcome, Russia has decided that it can gamble possible direct involvement in a messy war in return for a robust presence in a region where the dominant influence of the U.S. looks, for the moment, to be vulnerable.

Russia has explained its military buildup in Syria as a response to the threat from the Islamic State. However, though the deputy head of Russia’s security service, the FSB, estimated earlier this month that 2,400 Russian nationals were fighting with the Islamic State—with another 3,000 from Central Asian states along Russia’s borders—and although the group has a province in the Caucasus, it is unlikely that the threat to Russian security has been more than a small part of the reason for the country’s massive transshipment of arms and supplies over the last few weeks. While denying that any troops are there at present, both Syrian and Russian officials have talked about this possibility in the future, and already there are several hundred Russian soldiers based in Syria.

President Putin is scheduled to address world leaders in New York on September 28 during the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), and no doubt will hold the usual slew of bilateral meetings that are typical of the opening days of UNGA. Syria is bound to be high on his agenda. Rather than speak of a political solution, however, it is likely that Putin will continue to stress that the Islamic State is the greater threat and that Assad is an essential partner in the fight against the group. Indeed, it is noticeable that since the Russian buildup, the Syrian air force has diverted its attention from dropping barrel bombs on civilian targets in other rebel-held areas, to attacking the Islamic State in both Raqqa and Palmyra.

The Russian action challenges both the fact and the theory of U.S. dominance in the Middle East. Its buildup asks the question: can the U.S. remain the key arbiter of Middle East politics just by being the world’s preeminent political, military, and economic power? Russia’s decision to create a significant presence on the ground is in sharp contrast to the so-far unsuccessful U.S. program to train and equip a local force to fight the Islamic State. Russia’s main objective is to increase its foothold and influence in the Middle East in competition with the United States, and the resilience of the Islamic State has provided the opportunity to do so decisively and sustainably.

Beyond the United States, the two countries that have the most to say about Russian engagement in Syria are Israel and Turkey; one for fear that Russian arms might end up with Hizballah, the other for fear that Russia’s presence on the ground will ensure the survival of the Assad regime. Prime Minister Netanyahu, still at odds with the U.S. Administration over the Iran nuclear deal, has just concluded a trip to Moscow, where he appears to have received sufficient assurances that the Russian buildup will not have an adverse effect on Israel’s security. President Erdogan will be in the Russian capital on Wednesday; he needs space to continue his campaign against the Kurds and is arguably in a weaker position than when he last went to Moscow in July. Even if Russia agrees to the departure of Assad, the continuing presence of the Islamic State will justify a continued Russian presence, and this in turn will give Russia considerable influence over the selection and policies of his successor.

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