Why is Vladimir Putin announcing increased Russian involvement in Syria? He still denies Russian involvement in Ukraine. Why is Syria different?
Let me first say that I think that trying to figure out what is in Putin’s head is of limited value. “What is Putin thinking?” is, nonetheless, an intriguing parlor game.
The reasons Russia is becoming more and more publicly involved in Syria are many: continuing to prop up their only remaining dictator in the region, wanting to be in on any settlement that is reached, and so on. Of the possibilities that have been suggested, most are not mutually exclusive; a strategic move can include multiple objectives.
The counterintuitive, however, is a fascinating play in that parlor game. An Associated Press report suggests that Russia would like to use Syria change its relationship with the US and remove Ukraine and sanctions from the American-European agenda. Looking more closely at the counterintuitive may also uncover points that the conventional wisdom has ignored. So let’s do that. I am trying to take Putin’s viewpoint in this analysis; please do not confuse it with my own.
Putin has offered several times to partner with the United States against “terrorism,” but the United States hasn’t taken him up on it. Nor has the United States agreed to sit down with Russia as two great powers carving up spheres of influence in Ukraine. Relations with China aren’t going so well; the gas deal seems to be coming apart with plummeting oil prices and China’s slowing economy. What’s an aspiring Great Power to do?
Some think that Putin is doing rather well in eastern Ukraine. Although the situation in the Donbas doesn’t promise empire on the scale of Crimea, continuing unrest will make coherent government difficult for Kiev and keep Ukraine from joining the EU and NATO. The Donbas incursion was done a little at a time; so might a move into Syria. But this time, announce that Russia is involved.
Michael Kofman sees four stages in Russia’s destabilization of the Donbas: 1) Political escalation of separatist tendencies; 2) Direct action and talk of “Novorossiya” to scare Kiev; 3) a brief hybrid war to test Kiev’s capabilities; 4) a frozen conflict.
How might a similar strategy apply in Syria? 1) Quiet military supply to Syria, along with covert training personnel; this stage is now ending. The purpose in Ukraine was to soften up the ground for further Russian control; in Syria it is to establish the legitimacy of Russian involvement. We are now in stage 2, in which Putin declares an interest and hopes to intimidate other players. Stage 3 would include causing near-misses with American planes and other difficult interactions, along with military support of Assad. More positively, Russia might remind the US of the value of partnering against “terrorism.” Stage 4 would be a bloody defeat of Assad’s enemies or a peace conference in which Assad remains president.
The connection between stages 3 and 4 has a bit of an underpants gnome sense to it, but it allows flexibility in tactics. That flexibility in Ukraine allowed Russia to recover from the MH17 disaster and continue its destabilization.
Why would the United States cooperate with Russia to preserve Assad’s power? In the fall of 2013, John Kerry wondered whether Assad would give up his chemical weapons and Sergey Lavrov quickly said he would. Of course, Assad would have to continue as president in order to sign on to the Chemical Weapons Convention and then to make the sites and munitions available to allow the removal of those weapons and their precursors, and the United States did not object. The operation was overseen by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and was international in scope. All of the identified weapons were out of Syria within a year.
Russia was seen as a responsible international partner during the chemical weapons removal operations. Renewing that role in Syria could help convince Europe and possibly the United States that their sanctions against Russia are unnecessary.
Although the United States has opposed Assad, it has had a hard time choosing whom to back in the Syrian opposition. Its bombing of ISIS is minimally helpful to Assad, and stabilization of Syria and neighboring Iraq is in its interests. So it might yet accede to a “least-worst” Syrian accord in which Assad would remain. The opposition has no single person who could replace Assad as a strongman.
Iran’s opposition to ISIS and its calling for peace talks in Syria is another factor that might help push the United States toward a mutually acceptable solution. After the Congressional charade of opposition to Iran, the administration will need to rebalance toward the nuclear agreement and its partners in the P5+1, one of whom is Russia. Russia has supported the agreement despite possible its potential unfavorable effects on the price of oil.
Syria is a place that Russia can face the United States without NATO. That means less danger of igniting World War III, and an increased possibility of cooperation.
There are downsides: the cost of operations in Syria, on top of the operations in progress in Ukraine and an economy damaged by the price of oil and sanctions; the potential for getting entangled as the Soviet Union did in Afghanistan or the United States has in several places; and the return home of more dead bodies. There are potentially subtler blowback effects, like the reaction in the Caucasus to Russian intervention against Moslems and the return of fighters from Syria to the Caucasus.
Analysis of national strategies proceeds from an assumption of rational players. The strategy I’ve outlined above is rational on the basis of the evidence I’ve adduced. A great many factors have been left out, but it is possible that Putin leaves them out too. We don’t know. However, history suggests that Russian leaders have similarly left out factors in the past. Mikhail Gorbachev thought, to the extent he thought at all about the Baltic Republics, that the demonstrations and legislative antics there were trivial. They turned out to be a large factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Similarly, Putin himself has underestimated Kiev’s ability to muster civil society and an army.
Can we test whether or to what degree a grand bargain among great powers is Putin’s goal in increasing Russia’s involvement in Syria? I am seeing reports that Putin will propose a grand bargain to the United Nations General Assembly later this month. We shall see what his speech brings, although it is not clear how much sincerity he invests in his public statements.
Are there opportunities to be seized by the United States and Europe? Ending the war in Syria would be positive, but, with or without Russia, a way to convincing the many factions to end hostilities is far from clear. The removal of chemical weapons made the war a little less horrendous than it might have been, but there seems to be little residual good will from that operation among the participants. There is no obvious linkage to improve the situation in Ukraine.
Alexander Clarkson gives a broader assessment of the Russian move. There’s a lot going on in Putin’s decision.
Photo from CNN, dated 2012. This has been going on for a while.