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Is Russia trumping US in Syria? Pentagon is of two minds. (+video)

On one hand, Russia could be inserting itself into a quagmire in Syria. On the other, it's calling the shots. 

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    Syrian Army personnel load howitzers near the village of Morek in Syria Wednesday. The Syrian Army has launched an offensive this week in central and northwestern Syria aided by Russian airstrikes.
    Alexander Kots/Komsomolskaya Pravda/AP
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When top United States officials on Friday announced the end – they preferred to call it an “operational pause” – to the unsuccessful effort to train “moderate” Syrian rebels fighting against the Islamic State, there was the slightest bit of a wink and a nudge. 

“We’re actually going after [the Islamic State], which Russia is not doing,” a senior administration official told reporters. In propping up Syria's Assad regime, he said, Russia risks getting itself "immersed in a quagmire.”

It is surely cathartic to use the word "quagmire" about someone else. US officials see Russia as getting itself involved in its own Iraq War – or more accurately, a reprise of its disastrous intervention into Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Yet that doesn’t necessarily make the situation on the ground any better for the US military.

“If we’re joking about Russians getting dragged into the quagmire, well, we’re in there, too,” notes Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Behind the scenes, US military intelligence and operations specialists are grappling with a training mission that “isn’t working,” ethnic divisions that are growing, and a government in Iraq that cannot exert a unifying force on the country, he adds.

And now, Russia is essentially calling the shots in Syria. In many ways, the past few days have shown dramatically that Russia's options to get what it wants in Syria are far better than the US options.

Will that be to Russia's long-term gain? That is far from certain. But in the short term, it makes some former Defense officials uneasy. 

“The terms are being dictated by the Russians.” says Christopher Harmer, former deputy director of operations for the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet. “They have 30 aircraft flying in Syria. We have far more than that. They should not be dictating to us, we should be dictating to them.”

Two US aircraft had to be diverted over Syria this week in order to keep a safe distance from a Russian fighter jet. The need to deconflict airspace is “nothing new,” says Mr. Harmer, now a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “There’s contact between us and Russians all the time – you figure out how not to run into each other.”

But Russia's intervention speaks to its boldness – and its desire to convey that boldness to the US.

Likewise, when Russia launched cruise missile strikes from the Caspian Sea 1,500 miles away, instead of from the Mediterranean, it was sending a message to the US “that Russians have unlimited access to Iranian and Iraqi airspace,” Harmer said 

Friday's announcement that the US was ending its effort to find and train moderate rebels sent a different message. It said that the US doesn't have reliable partners on the ground. 

Russia has “proxies in the form of the Syrian Arab Army, Hezbollah, and the Iranians to do the actual fighting on the ground,” Harmer adds. “We don’t.” 

The US goal of finding rebels that want to fight the Islamic State was always aspirational, members of the administration acknowledge.

“That gave us a very high bar in terms of recruiting,” another senior administration official told reporters. Most rebels are much more concerned with first toppling Assad. 

And now Russia has stepped in. Only 10 percent of Russian airstrikes have targeted the Islamic State, officials estimate; the rest have gone against opposition groups opposed to Assad. The purpose is not only to stop the advance of opposition forces threatening the Assad regime, but also to begin to set conditions for a ground counteroffensive to retake lost territory.

The Russian military has established a forward operating base in Syria which consists of 2,000 to 3,000 Russian troops, as well as combat aircraft, helicopters, drones, and a battalion of troops, retired Gen. John Keane, now with the Institute for the Study of War, warned in congressional testimony Thursday.

While one Pentagon official told the Daily Beast this week that he greeted the announced intelligence cooperations between Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Russia “with pretty much a yawn,” Dr. Cordesman of CSIS argues that the cooperation “creates all kinds of complications for the US presence.”

While the Russians are consolidating their allies in the Mideast behind the Syria war, the US has not consolidated its anti-Assad allies, choosing instead to try to avoid a quagmire and focus on the Islamic State.

Arab allies are “looking at us with different levels of distrust,” he says. “We haven’t built up the trust of Arab allies, and the Russians are basically exploiting it.” 

The Russian move into Syria, says Harmer, “has more or less guaranteed that [Syrian dictator Bashar] Assad will be in place for the foreseeable future.”

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