Has Putin Finally Stepped on His Own Rake in Syria?

In October 2016 the Russian government made a significant announcement about its Syria policy that Western sources overlooked. Moscow announced that it supported the restoration of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s power throughout the country, something it had not stressed previously. This statement and its consequences merit serious scrutiny by the West because its implications are so negative.

First, it not only commits Russia and its troops to an open-ended war on behalf of Assad throughout all of Syria, it identifies Moscow’s objectives with those of Assad and Iran, his patron. In other words, it cements a Russo-Iranian alliance in the Middle East; no matter how limited Moscow may say it is, this carries profound negative consequences for the United States and its Middle Eastern allies. It encourages more mischief-making by Tehran in the future, secure in the knowledge of Putin’s support. Indeed, we see this already in the many arms sales and economic deals now being explored by Moscow and Tehran.

Second, this statement and deal with Iran means that any potential US “deal” with Russia over Syria entails an obligatory acceptance of Assad, despite his war crimes and use of chemical warfare, as the legitimate president of Syria. It also means acceptance of a humiliating defeat and acquiescence to Russia’s “co-leadership” in the region, including a supposed war on ISIS. Russian leaders may be considering a future commitment to such a war, but previous evidence shows Moscow will not fight ISIS whatever it says and agrees to do.

Third, this statement reveals Putin’s belief that not only has he won and Washington lost in Syria, but that he is determined to humiliate Washington wherever he can by showing its impotence. For all the talk of a deal with Trump once he assumes office, it appears that Putin intends to exact his acquiescence as the price of an agreement and then leverage it to further effect in Europe and beyond.

Fourth, Moscow intends to convert Syria into a Middle Eastern satellite and use it as a conduit to support groups like Hezbollah and to establish permanent bases for its navy, air force, and air defenses. This military program is consistent with its continuing search for bases in Cyprus and Egypt and its desire to have a military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean so as to deter NATO. If successful, Turkey will be surrounded by Russian forces, which would neutralize Turkey’s ability to contribute anything militarily to NATO and inhibit its independence whatever Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan might claim.

On the other hand, and fifth, Putin may have stepped on his own rake without realizing it. Moscow has achieved almost everything it could have hoped for in Syria. But by acceding to Assad and Tehran’s desires, it is not clear that he is now fighting for Russia’s or even his own best interests. It simply is not clear that Russia can provide the support over time needed to establish Assad’s control throughout Syria and eliminate all resistance and threats to him. It is relatively cheap to send air defenses to rebels, and to negate Russia’s aerial advantage and leave the hapless Syrian army face to face with its enemies. Moscow runs the risk of getting ensnared in its own self-made quagmire, as its Soviet predecessor did in Afghanistan. A quagmire becomes apparent once it is clear that the external belligerent is fighting to impose a government that cannot stand on its own in a war-torn country. Moscow, already operating under strained circumstances, may have to pour good money after bad to sustain Assad until it can no longer afford to do so. In that case, as in Afghanistan in 1992, its client will collapse with profoundly negative domestic and international repercussions beyond Syria and Russia.

As the Trump Administration takes power, it ought to give more thought to these possibilities. The idea of a deal with Russia against ISIS makes little sense, especially as ISIS is already reeling without Russia and there is little we can do in Syria until we find an ally who can beat Assad. Since Trump and his team have evinced no sign of being interested in humanitarian considerations, they should think long and hard about realpolitik and realize that Moscow’s open-ended commitment to Assad gives us the possibility of leverage. That is, if we can hold off making a deal with Putin until his Syrian adventure becomes so costly that he wants a deal with us more than we do with him.

Stephen Blank, a UkraineAlert contributor, is a Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.

Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting of the Presidential Council for Strategic Development and Priority Projects at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, November 25, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Ilnitsky/Pool