As Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria drags on, a number of commentators have suggested that President Vladimir Putin’s bold move could drag Russia into an Afghan-style quagmire. This negative outcome is far from guaranteed, however, and Putin holds more cards than his critics realize. Russia may well achieve its core military objectives in Syria — while the United States cannot.
Here’s how Putin might achieve his ideal outcome in Syria.
To start, a key strength of Russia’s Syrian military strategy is its simplicity. Today the Russian bombing campaign seeks only to stabilize the Syrian regime’s lines around the key corridor running north from Damascus through Homs and Hama. This approach provides breathing space for Assad, and allows his regime to implement its long-mooted Plan B — a rump state centered on the Alawite heartland along the Mediterranean coast. While it’s unclear whether the Assad regime can re-conquer large portions of Syria, the rebels are now on the defensive and the regime has stopped losing crucial pieces of territory.
The United States’ strategy, by contrast, remains much more convoluted. President Barack Obama both demands that “Assad must go,” while also vowing to “degrade and destroy” Islamic State. To date, though, the United States has been unwilling to commit the necessary military forces to achieve either of these goals. Not surprisingly, Assad continues to cling to power while Islamic State controls large chunks of both Syria and Iraq.
Putin’s desire to reassert Russia’s influence in the Middle East appears to be bearing fruit already. By summoning Assad to Moscow on Oct. 20, Putin made clear that Russia now runs the show in Syria. Indeed, the reported use of a Russian military plane to secretly transport Assad to Moscow demonstrates Assad’s total dependence on Russia, not just militarily, but for his personal safety as well. By all indications Assad is painfully aware of this dynamic — and Putin surely is, too.
Assad’s reliance on Russia thus offers Putin a number of diplomatic options vis-à-vis the West. The early 19th century military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously said that “war is the continuation of politics by other means,” and Putin clearly seeks to translate Russia’s military campaign into political success. According to a statement from the Russian president published on the Kremlin’s website, “positive results in military operations will lay the base for then working out a long-term settlement based on a political process that involves all political forces, ethnic and religious groups… We would do this, of course, in close contact with the other global powers and with the countries in the region that want to see a peaceful settlement to this conflict.”
Translation: a solution to the Syrian crisis flows through me.
Consider the following scenario. After an additional one or two months of Russian bombing, Assad’s grip on the regime’s remaining territory looks secure. Putin could then propose a political compromise between Assad and his enemies, which would entail a power-sharing agreement between Assad and as many of the non-Islamic State rebels that can be cajoled into working with his regime — and who would agree to target Islamic State.
The West might well consider such an outcome acceptable. Europe’s overwhelming concern is stopping the flow of refugees from Syria, while the United States’ core objective remains weakening Islamic State. While neither Europe nor the United States could afford to say so — at least explicitly — it’s still possible that the West would accept a deal that leaves Assad in power, either in a ceremonial role or as part of a long-term transition.
While the United States would need to walk back its absolutist “Assad must go” policy, Europe would surely leap at any straw that offers at least some possibility of easing its refugee burden. To sweeten the deal further, Putin might even agree to implement “no-fly” safe zones in northern Syria where humanitarian organizations can tend to the millions of Syrians displaced by the war — an option which to date Russia has rejected.
Naturally, Putin would demand the West pay a price for this cooperation. First of all, he would surely require that Russia be afforded a seat at the table for any discussions involving a broader geopolitical and security architecture for the Middle East. Indeed, even without Western support, Russia has made progress towards this goal. Putin reportedly spoke with important Sunni leaders in the Gulf states and Jordan to brief them on his conversations with Assad.
Even more important than expanding Moscow’s influence in the Middle East, Putin might seek to use his Syrian campaign to force an end to Western economic sanctions over Ukraine. Although the United States is unlikely to accept a Syria-for-Ukraine trade-off, the Europeans very well might. Many European countries and businesses already want an end to sanctions anyway, and if Putin offers Europe even a glimmer of hope of solving its refugee problem, the pressure on the European Union from its member states to end sanctions may prove irresistible. In Putin’s best-case scenario, Europe might even pressure the United States to wind down its own sanctions regime as well.
To be clear, this represents a hypothetical scenario and any number of things could still go wrong for Russia. Russian military personnel could be captured and held as hostages; the Russians could face retaliatory terrorist strikes from jihadists within Russia itself; Assad may continue to lose ground despite Russia’s airstrikes; and Russian domestic public opinion could swing decisively against Putin if the Syrian campaign drags on or the Russian economy continues to sink.
Moreover, the same moderate rebels currently on the receiving end of Russian airstrikes may well reject any Russian role in forging a political solution, thereby undercutting Putin’s ability to present Moscow’s involvement as indispensable to solving the Syrian crisis.
Despite these substantial downsides, if events break the right way for him, Putin could still surprise us all with a geopolitical victory.
Josh Cohen is a former USAID project officer involved in managing economic reform projects in the former Soviet Union. He contributes to a number of foreign policy-focused media outlets.