Putin’s troubling Syria gambit

Guess who’s decided to join the conflict in Syria? Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The Russian president, apparently undeterred by international sanctions and thoroughly in control of territory seized from Ukraine last year, is making a major push on Syria, the country that today is the undisputed epicenter of global strife, extremist ideology and human misery.

Russian military sales to the Syrian regime are nothing new. But in the past few days, something appears to have changed. Intelligence officials and witnesses on the ground report a sudden and sharp increase in activity, with more sophisticated weaponry, more personnel, work including the expansion of port and airport facilities, and the building of prefabricated barracks that could house an estimated 1,000 more Russian advisers or military personnel.

Most troubling of all, though, is speculation that Russia might be planning to establish a forward air operating base in Latakia, described as a stronghold of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (although Syria’s envoy to Moscow dismissed such talk).

The developments have left the United States looking unprepared, unsure how to respond and confused about what exactly Putin has in mind. Remember, it was only a couple of months ago that President Obama surprised everyone by praising Putin for helping negotiate the Iran nuclear deal and suggesting that perhaps Russia’s good work could now extend to finding a solution to the Syrian war.

Putin likely wants Obama to think that is indeed what he is interested in now. But the reality is that the Russians are acting in direct opposition to U.S. goals.

For a start, Russia has developed a strategic alliance with Iran, underscored by the recent visit to Moscow by Qasem Suleimani, the notorious head of Iran’s Quds force, the elite force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. When U.S. officials started complaining to Russia about the sudden military build-up in Syria, Moscow first replied that it was simply supporting the arms sales contracts that have been in place for some time. When it became impossible to deny the stepped-up deliveries, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia was simply helping al-Assad’s government fight against the Islamic State and had sent some trainers to help the Syrian army operate the weaponry.

Putin has tried to make it sound as if Moscow and Washington are on the same page, both lining up to combat the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. “We really want to establish some kind of international coalition to fight terrorism and extremism,” Putin has said.

But in this war, the fact that two sides share a common enemy does not make them friends. Both Russia and the United States view ISIS as an enemy, but they stand on opposite sides in this conflict.

After all, the Russians are not really there to fight ISIS, as such. They are in Syria to advance their interests and to protect al-Assad. In contrast, Obama has said (with little follow through) that al-Assad should go, and that the war is unlikely to end during his presidency.

On Friday, though, the official twitter account of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement attributed to Lavrov essentially ruling out an end to the al-Assad regime. It read: “#Lavrov: We need to put aside the idea of regime change in #Syria, since prior attempts have led to an unprecedented spike in terrorism.”

The proof that Russia’s main concern is not fighting ISIS comes in the form of the weapons it is providing the Syrian regime with, namely advanced air defense systems. ISIS has no capability of attacking by air, suggesting that Russia is actually beefing up Syrian air defenses with something else in mind — perhaps Turkish forces, or else potential no-fly zones implemented by the U.S.-led coalition.

Syria is important to Moscow partly because it hosts Russia’s only port in the Mediterranean. The Tartus naval facility stands about 50 miles south of Latakia, which could end up as a capital of a rump Syria if the country breaks up.

Ultimately, though, Russia’s support for Syria could be less about keeping al-Assad in power and more about trying to expand its global influence. Indeed, there are shades of the Cold War as Moscow attempts to turn itself into a player in the Middle East, standing firmly behind an Arab dictator opposed by Washington. And with every military cargo plane that lands in Syria, Moscow is making its intention to play a muscular role in the conflict on the international stage more clear. In the process, Putin has found a way to reassert Russian power, to turn the Middle Eastern turmoil to Russia’s advantage.

So Russia is raising the stakes, but Western analysts are unclear about Putin’s endgame. Will he stop at protecting al-Assad? Will he be content just defending Russia’s naval base, and his country’s access to the Mediterranean? Or does he intend to help al-Assad and Hezbollah push back against opposition groups and recapture all of Syria?

How all this plays out could have significant implications for the region and for Russia — remember, it was Moscow’s involvement in Afghanistan that helped bring down the Soviet Union. But whatever happens next, the West should already have learned one thing in the past 18 months: Putin is a bold and daring opponent, a particular problem at a time when the West’s strategy in Ukraine remains fuzzy, and its approach to Syria appears an unqualified disaster.

The more entrenched al-Assad becomes, the more distant a solution to the Syrian war grows. So, this fortified alliance of Russia and Iran in Syria is yet more bad news for the people of Syria — and for a United States and its allies that are losing their claim to global leadership a little more every day.

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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