The free-for-all in Syria has become a proxy war between Russia and the United States, even though Washington refuses to fight it. The problem for Moscow is that this conflict also remains everything else it has been since breaking out in 2011.
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By David B. Kanin
The Deputy National Intelligence Advisor to the President of the United States provided a fine lesson in teleology in the wake of having been blindsided by what can be fairly described as gleeful Russian bombing runs against Syrian groups supported by Washington. Ben Rhodes’ version  of official denials that Russian President Putin once again had run circles around his American adversaries was to say the Russians have stepped into a complex situation studded with institutions that (I am paraphrasing here) engage in practices not existing in modern societies. This captures a core reason for the serial US failures to construct thought-through strategies and management processes for its multiple wars in the Middle East and South Asia. American decision makers remain in a state of denial about their weakening position in the world and refuse to learn from Professor Putin that high-toned words about Democracy, “governance,” and human rights often are no substitute for the effective application of sheer military force.
After a series of setbacks of his own between the fall of Serbian strongman Milosevic in 2000 and the “Orange Revolution” in Kyiv in 2004, Putin has rung up successes in Georgia, Crimea, and eastern Ukraine. His air assault on the mess of groups seeking to unseat Bashir al-Assad already is a success in the sense it has once again made US foreign policy look amateurish and underscored Moscow’s image as an actor not afraid to use every tool at its disposal to advance its interests and priorities. To make matters worse for Washington, the latest theater to provide a stage for a (so far) effective Russian military performance is one in which the President, two Secretaries of State, and numerous other civilian and military officials already had done harm to America’s credibility without much help from Moscow.
The Russian move has global impact. Whether regarding Poland and missile defense, promises made to Bosniaks at Dayton and Kosovars regarding recognition of their country’s sovereignty by all EU members, Chinese construction activity on atolls in the South China Sea, or pledges to support Saudi Arabia and Gulf Arab countries against Iran, Washington has demonstrated it is not willing to make sure its allies do well and its adversaries do not. Its allies notice. Moscow’s air strikes received positive reviews from Italian and German officials. One of the most important aspects of current events is that the so-called “Government” of Iraq publicly backed the Russian air strikes, demonstrating the strength of Iranian influence over a political formation supposedly dependent on (and certainly bankrolled by) the United States. Baghdad can say what it likes—Washington is not going to do anything about it.
Nevertheless, even though the Americans clearly are not willing or, perhaps, able to do anything Russia need worry about, Moscow is going to have to work to make things come out right (for them) in the long run. No matter his public expressions of pride over the initial air strikes, it is clear Putin stepped into Syria partly because the Assad regime was heading toward collapse. Battlefield losses over the last year have demonstrated that Damascus’s forces are incapable of holding their ground—much less of winning the war—against the myriad enemies seeking to destroy them (and make no mistake, this is a multi-sided fight to a kinetic finish in which any truces or internationally-negotiated deals will simply be breathing spaces in which all sides get ready for the next round of fighting). The emerging reality that Assad was not going to be able to survive even with the support of Iran and its proxy Hizballah army is what forced Putin’s hand.
No amount of Russian military activity can restore the pre-war situation—and Putin knows it. The question is whether Moscow can use force, diplomacy and whatever other tools he has at his disposal to make sure whatever new status quo emerges includes an Assad- controlled piece of ground significant enough for Putin to claim victory. The few months of bombing he has said his forces will carry out will not be enough to guarantee that outcome. It will be interesting to see if the Russians are subtle and flexible enough to eventually craft arrangements with enough international and on-the-ground elements to turn their partnership with the Iranians, Alawites, and Hizballans into a workable long-term Russian-Shi’a axis.
Assuming this happens, Putin (or his successors) will face the problems inherent in a combination set against the many sectarian (not to mention jihadist) elements in the 85 percent of the Muslim world that is Sunni. Moscow may also need a policy toward the Kurds, who they could use to gain leverage against the Turks, Iran’s subaltern partners in Baghdad and—once again—the hapless Americans. Even if Moscow manages to juggle all this, the costs of war and international adventure are going to start to add up.
Moscow’s emergence as a major element in Syria could make things very interesting in the ongoing scorpions’ dance between Israel and the Palestinians. Putin likely will attempt to build on the military-to-military de-confliction discussions with Israel to see whether his willingness to exert power can further undermine US influence in Tel Aviv, Cairo, and even Riyadh. Again, the extent to which such opportunities open up will depend first and foremost on Russian military performance—Moscow would do well to remember how strong everyone thought the Americans were after the first Gulf War and how weak Washington looks now to virtually everyone outside the West Wing of the White House.
It even is possible a measured Russian military campaign could lead Moscow eventually to attempt to establish contacts with anyone in the Islamic State smart enough to realize they can maximize their long-term prospects by taking short-term advantage of Putin’s single-minded effort to weaken their common American adversary. There is no question Putin’s foray into the Middle East risks refocusing Chechens and other central Asians among the militants on bringing the jihad back to Russia. Nevertheless, one indicator that the Islamic State is maturing into a capable (while still unspeakably brutal) international player would be an ability to decide which of its many but disparate and squabbling enemies to attack or deal with as circumstances change. Conversely, if the bloody regime in Raqqah proves to be as rigid about how it implements the politics of its theology as the Americans are about their Neo-Enlightenment teleology, then eventually these jihadists may find their potential to be a worthy successor to previous Caliphates will be more limited than they think.
In sum, Putin can claim another success in his focused effort to weaken America’s global stature and now is an unavoidable frontline factor in whatever happens next in Syria and the greater Middle East. If he can skillfully navigate a region with so many dangerous moving parts his reputation as a strategic decision-maker will grow considerable. If not, then Russia’s economic and demographic weaknesses might finally begin to come into high relief, and his hold on public respect and power likely will erode.
David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
1) Ben Rhodes interview at the Atlantic Council, October 3, 2015.
2) The Economist, 3-9 October 2105.