“An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work.” So said U.S. President Barack Obama when Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his military campaign in Syria to support the country’s authoritarian ruler.
There’s just one problem, though: A day after Putin announced a Russian withdrawal from Syria, it’s clear that his gamble has turned into a major win for Moscow. Here’s what Russia achieved — and why it was so successful.
First — and most importantly — Russian bombing turned the tide of the war in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s favor. When the Russian military deployed to Syria, Assad was in serious trouble, with many predicting the regime could collapse. Five months later, after recapturing key chunks of territory in both the south and north, Assad clearly holds the military upper hand. Even Lt. Gen. Vincent R. Stewart, head of the United States Defense Intelligence Agency, admits “the Russian reinforcement has changed the calculus completely.”
Russia’s bombing campaign did more than help Assad recover lost territory. Syria’s “moderate” Sunni rebels from the Free Syrian Army — many supported by Washington — suffer the brunt of the Russian bombing campaign, particularly in the north along the Syrian-Turkish border. Assad’s forces have almost cut supply lines from Turkey to Washington’s Sunni allies, and they are squeezed between Assad on one side and Islamic State on the other. As a result, Moscow verges on achieving a key objective of turning the Syrian war into a binary choice for the West between the horror of Islamic State and the brutality of the Assad regime. Given that American support for Islamic State is unthinkable, Moscow clearly hopes Washington will become more amenable to a long-term role for Assad in Syria — something Stewart himself concedes is likely.
Second, Putin recently achieved an important diplomatic objective by forcing the United States to acknowledge that Russia plays a key role in determining Syria’s future. At the beginning of Russia’s intervention, Washington’s position was that any coordination with Moscow would be limited to military “deconfliction” talks to avoid an accidental clash between American and Russian forces.
The most recent ceasefire beginning on February 27, however, was negotiated in Geneva directly between the United States and Russia. Both sides agreed to act as equal guarantors for the ceasefire, and Obama concluded negotiations by speaking directly to Putin. As icing on the cake, Moscow recently forced Washington to renounce its position that “Assad must go,” with Secretary of State John Kerry stating “the United States and our partners are not seeking so-called regime change,” and that the focus was “not on our differences about what can or cannot be done immediately about Assad.”
Third, Putin responded to Turkey’s shoot down of a Russian jet by humiliating Ankara, an emerging rival in the Middle East and Central Asia. Russia deployed advanced S400 surface-to-air missiles near Turkey. With a range of 250 miles, the Russian military now dominates the skies over Syria and its immediate neighbors, effectively denying Turkish jets access to Syrian airspace.
Putin also grievously wounded Turkey’s key rebel allies and close ethnic cousins, the Syrian Turkmen. Turkmen rebels reportedly killed the Russian pilots shot down by Turkish jets, and bombing the Turkmen allows Putin to both avenge these deaths — thereby playing to Russian public opinion — while degrading the effectiveness of one of Assad’s enemies.
Putin also hit Turkey where it hurts by playing the “Kurdish card” against Ankara. Turkey worries that Syria’s Kurds, the Peoples’ Protection Units, or YPG, are close to establishing an autonomous state in northern Syria, running along the Turkish-Syrian border. Russia, though, plays on Turkish fears by providing air support for YPG efforts to fully control the Turkish-Syrian border, and Moscow even reportedly deployed 200 troops to a Kurdish-controlled town right on the Turkish border.
Finally, Putin’s Syrian campaign has contributed to weakening the European Union. NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe Philip Breedlove has said that Russia “weaponizes” refugees by bombing civilian targets and supporting Assad’s troops, thereby causing a substantially greater inflow of refugees into Europe — up to 100,000 from the city of Aleppo alone. Meanwhile, resentment toward Germany’s open-door refugee policy produces rising anger across the EU, with countries such as Austria even suspending participation in Europe’s Schengen agreement, which allows for free passage between member states. Schengen remains a core component of EU unity, and some argue the collapse of Schengen could be the beginning of the end for the EU itself.
Looking at the scope of Putin’s Syrian “wins,” one major question jumps out: How did Russia manage to confound the naysayers by succeeding?
Russia entered Syria with one overriding objective: Preserve the Assad regime. To avoid another Afghanistan-style quagmire, Russia relies on fighters from its Shi’ite allies, including Assad, Hezbollah and Iran. By picking a clear and achievable goal and then ensuring that Moscow and its allies all rowed in one direction, Putin enacted a textbook proxy strategy.
Washington’s Syrian policy, meanwhile, remains a hopeless muddle. At various points the Obama administration insisted that “Assad must go” — and that Assad can stay. Its objectives have been to degrade and destroy Islamic State, reject broader cooperation with Moscow and partner in peace talks with Moscow.
The United States’ search for moderate rebels led it to support the Free Syrian Army. But FSA militias sometimes tactically ally with al Qaeda’s Syrian branch — effectively putting Washington on the same side at times as the perpetrators of 9/11.
Washington’s Sunni allies have not exactly been trouble-free either. Vice President Joseph Biden publicly accused the Turks, Saudis and Qataris of arming Syrian militants, stating “those allies’ policies wound up helping to arm and build allies of al Qaeda and eventually the terrorist Islamic State.” The United States also sees the Syrian Kurds as the most effective local anti-Islamic State force — yet Washington’s Turkish ally prioritizes attacking the Kurds over fighting Islamic state.
The Obama administration’s proxy strategy epitomizes this confusion. One Pentagon program spent $500 million on a train and equip program for Sunni rebels. The end result was a grand total of 60 trained rebels out of a target of 5,400, and even then, the few trainees actually sent into Syria promptly turned their weapons over to al Qaeda.
The apex of this failed strategy occurred when two American proxies recently fought each other. As part of their move to carve out an autonomous state, Syrian Kurds funded by the Pentagon recently attacked a CIA-backed rebel battalion, effectively placing two agencies of the United States government in a proxy war with each other.
As Moscow exits the Syrian morass, the five-month-long military campaign represents a clear geopolitical win for Vladimir Putin.
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.