What is Putin thinking? How Russia could shake up Syria crisis.

Does Vladimir Putin have grand designs in Syria, or is he just poking the West in the eye? Russian airstrikes could force the US to change its strategy.

Andrew Kelly/Reuters
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (l.) and US Secretary of State John Kerry speak to the media regarding the current situation in Syria at the United Nations headquarters in New York Wednesday.

The picture in Syria right now is concerning.

Russian airstrikes are expected to turn up the dial of Syria’s civil conflict, intensifying the chaos that has uprooted millions and split the nation into warring cantons, while complicating Washington’s efforts to find a political solution. The possibility of United States and Russian warplanes operating for different purposes in the same space is similarly unsettling.

And at the moment, there doesn’t appear to be much the Obama administration can do. The US strategy of building a force of moderate Syrian rebel fighters has flopped, and Russia has real national interests in Syria – including a naval base.

US policy appears to have created an opening for Russia to intervene in Syria, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has strutted through it.

The question is whether Putin has a vision of what’s supposed to happen next, or whether he’s winging it. In the answer to that question could come a stinging rebuke to Russian adventurism or an American reappraisal of its own strategy.

But for now, Russia’s endgame is not at all clear.

“Wrong-footing the United States and the West may be good tactics in the short term, but there seems to be no long-term vision of the purposes that Russian power is supposed to serve, other than to preserve the power of Russia’s elites,” writes Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Russia's long interest in Syria

The Russian interest in Syria is hardly new. Moscow has long supported the ruling Assad family, and it has maintained a naval base at Tartus on the Mediterranean since 1971. Mr. Putin has frequently inveighed against the threat of Islamic extremism growing near the southern border of the old Soviet empire.

In its initial airstrikes Wednesday, and in a second round on Thursday, Russian jets struck 12 targets belonging to the Islamic State, including a command center, said Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov.

But US sources said Russian attacks were not limited to Islamic State targets. They included strikes on areas controlled by other militant groups. At least one struck a Central Intelligence Agency-trained unit, according to Washington.

“It does appear they were in areas where there probably were not [Islamic State] forces,” said US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. “The result of this kind of action will inevitably simply be to inflame the civil war in Syria.”

It also raises the possibility of an inadvertent clash between Russian and US aircraft. The US has not specifically said whether it will defend US-trained fighters, but the sudden appearance of possibly hostile jets in an area where American planes are carrying out their own anti-IS operations could easily lead to confusion and even conflict. The Defense Department says that Russia gave it only an hour’s notice of Wednesday’s initial attacks and that is far from enough time.

Secretary of State John Kerry said military-to-military discussions aimed at avoiding accidental encounters could begin as early as Thursday. But “I do not think it is possible to overstate just how angry the Pentagon is over Russia’s latest escalation. An hour simply is not enough time to ‘deconflict’ US-led and Russian-led forces in Syria,” writes Dan Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Rethinking Assad?

It’s possible Russia will soon regret its escalation of involvement in Syria. The conflict is bitter, deadly, and intractable. Its regional context is a snake pit, with IS, Iran, Iraq, and the Gulf States all intensely interested in the Syrian outcome. Russia is already heavily militarily involved in eastern Ukraine and Crimea. For Putin, protecting Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad may be an imperialist move too far.

“The portrayal of Vladimir Putin as a grand chess master, shrewdly rebuilding the Russian empire through strength and wiles, is laughable,” writes veteran national security journalist Fred Kaplan in Slate.

It’s also possible the Russian escalation of the crisis could provide the US space to rethink its own strategy. Current US policy, which in essence calls on Mr. Assad to negotiate his own departure, no longer seems viable, says Philip Gordon, White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf Region from 2013 to 2015.

The US is not going to be able to find and train a force of “moderates” capable of ousting a standing Syrian army that’s now backed by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, writes Mr. Gordon, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Instead, the US might press for broad talks among all parties to the conflict, as it did to end similarly intractable conflicts in Bosnia in the 1990s. Interim agreements could deescalate the conflict while helping stem the flow of Syrian civilians from their homes.

Assad will be the sticking point. The US has called for him to go, and Sunni-dominated states that support the opposition, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, are adamant that he have no role in Syria’s future. Russia, Iran, and others, in contrast, see him as a figure of stability and will fight to keep him in power.

For diplomacy to make any progress, Assad’s fate must be the last item discussed, not the first, Gordon writes in Politico. “A negotiated interim solution in Syria – if it could be achieved – would obviously require painful compromise and entail lowering the bar from what has been our political objective so far.”

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