Putin is no chess master. He overstretched and misstepped in Syria, and U.S. would be wiser to wait him out than chase him out.
With each Russian escalatory step in Syria, the situation only seems to get worse. Critics pile on, citing it as an example of President Barack Obama’s “failed” foreign policy, calling for Obama to “do something” — confront Moscow, punish it for its reckless behavior, reassert leadership. But what would that something be?
Across the political spectrum, there are calls for a more muscular U.S. approach in Syria. Some are talking of proxy battles, while others are calling it a new Cold War and declaring a need to act tough to restore American credibility. But before the U.S. tumbles into something, it’s worth taking a step back and asking what Russian President Vladimir Putin aims to get out of this, and whether, if measured by his own goals, this brazen military intervention will work. I think the answer is no – which should guide how the U.S. should respond.
Let’s start with Putin’s stated objective for his intervention in Syria: fighting ISIS. This claim is preposterous. Few Russian strikes are taking place in Islamic State-controlled territory; the air campaign is focused on the opposition that is primarily fighting Assad. This is consistent with Putin’s inverted logic of the conflict, which — as he stated at his UN General Assembly speech last week — is as follows: Assad not only has a right to stay in power, but he in fact is the key to solving the ISIS problem. Unlike the United States and most of the rest of the world, who see the Syrian leader as a driver of the conflict, Putin asserts that Assad is the solution.
Russia’s motivation is simple: to protect Assad. Putin believes he is defending a basic principle against “outside intervention” that seeks to bring down an allied government—as he’s angrily watched happen over the last 15 years in Serbia, Iraq, Libya and Ukraine. And Russia’s military role in the Syrian conflict is hardly new. They’ve been there from the beginning as one of Assad’s only allies and chief weapons suppliers. Russian personnel have been on the ground throughout.
Seen this way, Putin’s moves are driven primarily out of fear and weakness, not confidence and strength. He sees his only ally left in the region on the ropes and therefore Russia had to come to his defense. Russia wants to maintain the only military outpost it has in the region, anchored by a key naval facility in Tartus.
Now that Russia has decided to go all-in to back Assad, it will have to be there for the long haul. It may enjoy some tactical battlefield successes. But defeats and mistakes are just as likely (or, as shown by Russian missiles landing in Iran, perhaps more likely). And for Russia to maintain its position it will require a continuing supply of resources and higher costs, which will prove harder to sustain over time.
Putin also wants to use the military intervention in Syria to change the subject from some of his troubles at home, particularly the situation in Ukraine and Russia’s economic tailspin. This seems to have worked in the short term. But like Ukraine, as the Syria intervention grinds on—and especially if Russian casualties mount—it’s very likely the Russian public will quickly sour on the intervention.
And finally, there’s the view that Putin’s actions are an effort to maintain geostrategic relevance. At the very least, Putin wants to ensure Russia remains a player in the region. But some claim that Putin has his eyes on a bigger prize: by stepping in where the U.S. has refused, Russia is trying to fill a leadership vacuum.
Putin’s open alliance with Iran, Hezbollah, and Assad only isolates Russia in the region, though. He is going after the very Syrian opposition that countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey have expended tremendous resources in trying to supply. And he’s found himself even further isolated in the world.
When you add this all up, it is very hard to see how Putin’s intervention in Syria is going to end well for Russia’s position in the Middle East, or anywhere. Moreover, it seems likely that this will boomerang back on Russia by making it an even more enticing target of Sunni extremists.
So what should the United States do about it? First, it should continue to condemn and isolate Russia; this should include exploring new economic sanctions. Second, it should increase support for the moderate Syrian opposition. Although the U.S. equip and train program as originally designed has floundered, there are other ways it can provide direct military support to the opposition—as it has with the Kurds in Iraq—which press reports suggest the administration is considering.
Third, the U.S. and its European partners need to maintain unity, especially in our collective commitment to NATO Allies like Turkey. One could envision Putin trying to drive a wedge in the Transatlantic Alliance by provoking a crisis with Turkey—a prospect he may be testing with recent airspace violations—probing whether we would come to its defense. And fourth, the U.S. and its coalition partners need to press the fight against ISIS, making clear that Russia’s escalation is not causing us to back off.
While Russia’s escalation only makes Syria worse, the U.S. needs to avoid a knee-jerk reaction and instead practice strategic patience. Although many foreign policy pundits seem to be fixing for a fight with Putin, we need to remember that even his own stated goals are unachievable. Like in Ukraine, Putin has gotten himself into a situation that he doesn’t know how to get out of—and will only prove costly.
Putin is no great strategist. He doesn’t play chess, he plays checkers. However remote, the only silver lining that could potentially emerge is now that Putin has gotten himself in too deep. Once the costs become too high, that he will have to sue for peace, and in that process he may be willing to use his leverage to get Assad out. This is one area where President Obama’s patience can be a great asset, because the answer here is not for Obama to be more like Putin.
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