Why the West hopes Russia will avoid another Afghanistan

There are plenty of potential negatives to Russia’s actions in Syria, but stabilizing the security situation could be a positive step – if it's part of a broader transition, Western analysts say.

Syria Civil Defence via AP
This image taken Wednesday and posted on the Twitter account of Syria Civil Defense, a volunteer search and rescue group, shows the aftermath of an airstrike in Talbiseh, Syria. Russia on Wednesday carried out its first airstrikes in Syria in what President Vladimir Putin called a pre-emptive strike against the militants.

With Russia in Day 2 of its airstrikes in Syria, most of the focus in the West is on the potential negatives of President Vladimir Putin’s muscle-flexing in the Middle East.

There are plenty of them, regional analysts say – starting with the risk of a United States-Russia military confrontation now that both powers are carrying out airstrikes in Syria.

But there might also be some upside to Russia’s entry into the Syrian conflict, some of those analysts also say. One key factor will be how far Mr. Putin intends to go to keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad afloat.

“If the plan is to take whatever military steps necessary to maintain Assad in power, then it’s Afghanistan redux” for Russia, says Philip Gordon, who until recently was President Obama’s special adviser on Mideast affairs.

“But if the point is to prevent the catastrophic collapse of Assad” – then once that limited goal was accomplished, Russia might be ready to work with the United States and other powers toward a political transition and an end to Syria’s civil war, he adds.

“If that’s the case, then it could be a positive,” Mr. Gordon says.

So far it seems clear the Russian airstrikes are aimed at bolstering Mr. Assad. What remains murky is to what degree Putin intends to maintain that support, and at what cost.

Backing Assad: Another Afghanistan?

Last week Putin even offered the possibility that if necessary, he could introduce ground forces into Syria. But the potential for getting bogged down should dissuade the Russian leader from taking that step, Gordon says.

“Especially with the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, I’d hope he’d have some sense of what forever doubling down [on a Syria intervention] could lead to,” he says.

But if a limited intervention can reassure Putin about the security of Russia's long-term interests in the region, then it may factor in an eventual resolution of the Syrian crisis.

“If this show of force makes Putin more comfortable, perhaps he ends up more open to the political transition that is necessary,” Gordon says.

Russian officials continue to talk about the shared goal of achieving a “political transition” – but they differ with the US and other Western powers over where and for how long Assad should be part of a post-conflict Syria.

“We all want Syria democratic, united, secular,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday after meeting at the United Nations with US Secretary of State John Kerry. “But we have some differences on the details of how to get there.”

Since the Syrian conflict started in 2011, Mr. Obama has insisted that Assad must go. More recently, US officials have said the Syrian leader might remain for a short period of time as part of a “managed transition,” but they say the US still insists on Assad’s departure.

France, which is part of the US-led coalition to defeat the Islamic State and which has carried out some airstrikes in Syria, remains far less accommodating of any role for Assad. Speaking at a UN Security Council meeting organized by Russia Wednesday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Syria must have a “political transition that does not lead to maintaining in power Syria’s hangman.”

Russians and Islamic State

Russia insists its airstrikes are aimed at Syria’s terrorists – but Assad considers all the opposition he faces “terrorists,” including the moderate political and rebel forces seeking his ouster.

If Russia’s intervention truly were directed at militants of the self-described Islamic State, that could also be a boon to the international fight to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the group, some experts say.

“Militarily, it is quite possible that the Russians could enjoy more success in taking out ISIS targets than the US has thus far,” says Charles Dunlap, a former deputy judge advocate general of the US Air Force.

The reason: Russia may have less compunction than the US about “rules of engagement” designed to avoid civilian casualties, he says.

“The US air campaign has been rather anemic thus far, much because of reportedly strict rules of engagement that exceed what the law of armed conflict might require,” says Mr. Dunlap, now a law professor at Duke University in Durham, N.C. “I doubt the Russians will be constrained in the same way,” he adds, “though I don’t expect them to be indifferent to international law.”

The Russian airstrikes may have just begun, but so far most Washington analysts see them concentrating more on the moderate rebel forces (supported by the US and other Western countries) that have been chipping away at Assad’s enclaves along Syria’s western flank.

What do the Syrians think?

For some, all the focus on the Russians, the US, and Assad is giving too much weight to the prospect of big powers negotiating an end to Syria’s conflict – and leaving other crucial players in the Syria equation too far out of the picture.

What will never work is “trying to negotiate an end to the fighting from the outside, as if Assad was the key issue and as if it would be possible for some diplomatic elite or mix of power brokers to bring Syria back to some state of stability if only Assad would agree to leave,” says Anthony Cordesman, a national security and Middle East analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

The mistaken assumption of a lot of the analysis is that much would be solved if only “the United States and Russia could agree on how to approach the negotiations,” says Dr. Cordesman in a commentary Thursday on the CSIS website.

That narrow focus, he says, ignores the importance of other players in the Syrian conflict – from the Islamic State to the Kurds, on to Sunni groups and factions aligned with Assad – that he says are unlikely to agree to some externally imposed transition for Syria.

Cordesman says it’s time for “realism” and to stop acting “as if a shattered nation could be united by some top down negotiation between groups that hate each other and have no competence in dealing with the economic, social, and governance challenges Syria now faces.”

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