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Putin's Strategy In Syria: Clever Gambit Or Doomed Game Plan?

  • Charles Recknagel

The question for many observers is whether Russian President Vladimir Putin's bold gambit in Syria can succeed.

The question for many observers is whether Russian President Vladimir Putin's bold gambit in Syria can succeed.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent warplanes to Syria ostensibly to bomb positions of the Islamic State (IS) militant group.

But by directing its first air strikes at what U.S. officials and Syrian activists say are not IS but other opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Moscow is emphasizing from the start that it has its own plan for ending the Syrian civil war and will pursue it regardless of Western objections.

Russia's plan appears to be to bolster its longtime ally, Assad, while arguing that he alone in Syria has the military force to roll back IS. And if strengthening Assad means attacking moderate groups fighting Damascus and aligned with the West -- as some suggested on September 30 -- then so be it.

The question for many observers now is whether Putin's bold gambit can succeed.

Some foreign policy experts suggest it might.

Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in the United States, says Russia is better placed than the West to solve the crisis in Syria.

"The United States has from the outset been reluctant to get involved in the Syrian debacle," he commented in Politico magazine on September 28. "Its support for the opposition to Assad has been ineffective and so have its attempts at finding a diplomatic solution."

He continues, "Russia, by contrast, has armed Assad's military and now taken charge of defending the regime. It is clear to all stakeholders that the key to the resolution of the war is Moscow."

Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University in the United States, also sees Moscow as the strongest foreign player in Syria.

"The reason Russia can do what it's doing is because its local ally in Syria -- Assad's government -- actually exists," he comments in the Washington Post on September 29. "U.S. efforts to develop a moderate Syrian resistance group have abjectly failed."

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Drezner cautions, however, that it is too early to judge whether Putin will be able to impose order in Syria.

"Great powers always look the most powerful when they announce expanded activity in a region. It's what happens next that matters," he notes.

It is exactly that "what next" question that leads some other observers to believe Putin is making a fatal mistake in escalating his support for Assad.

They see Moscow's goal as keeping Assad in power or at least assuring he will be a key part of any process of political transition in Syria, despite Western demands that he step down. But to succeed, this strategy not only requires weathering Western anger at seeing moderate opposition forces bombed. It also requires not repeating the Soviet Union's disastrous experience in Afghanistan, where jihadi fighters defeated Moscow's forces in the 1980s.

Thomas Friedman, a columnist for The New York Times, observed on September 29, "Let's say the U.S. did nothing right now, and just let Putin start bombing IS and bolstering Assad. How long before every Sunni Muslim in the Middle East, not to mention every jihadist, has Putin's picture in a bull's-eye on his cellphone?"

Arguing that the Russian leader is now in a difficult position, Friedman says that "the only way Putin can get down from that tree is with our help in forging a political solution in Syria. And that only happens if the Russians and the Iranians force Assad -- after a transition -- to step down and leave the country, in return for the opposition agreeing to protect the basic safety and interests of Assad's Alawite community and both sides welcoming an international force on the ground to guarantee the deal."

Melik Kaylan, another journalist and political commentator, also sees Putin embarking on a doomed adventure.

"You could argue that Russian intervention will fortify the flagging spirit of Shi'ite armies in the field, Iranian, Iraqi, Assadist, Hizballah, etc., and they will do the fighting" against Sunni jihadists, he writes in Forbes magazine on September 30.

"But that would constitute a supreme miscalculation," he warns. "Suddenly, Europe and America (and Israel) will cease to be the [Sunni jihadists'] primary enemy. History will tilt back to the 1980s when the term jihad stood for war against Russia in Afghanistan. History has come full circle in Syria."

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