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Just what is Putin up to in Syria?

The phone lines between Washington and Moscow have been humming in the last couple of weeks as Russia builds its military presence near Syria’s Mediterranean coast.

For Putin, a military buildup in Syria does a couple of things.

Vladimir Putin is at it again – this time in Russia’s embattled ally Syria.

The phone lines between Washington and Moscow have been humming in the last couple of weeks as Russia builds its military presence near Syria’s Mediterranean coast. Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s call to the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, about it on Tuesday was his third in 10 days.

What exactly Putin is up to may be clearer by the time he addresses the U.N. General Assembly at the end of this month. It is probably about keeping his foot firmly wedged in the door. And it just might look worse to Washington than it actually is.

Russia has long had a presence in the region – its nearby naval station at Tartus is its only military facility outside the former Soviet Union. It has supplied arms to Syrian President Bashar Assad throughout the four-and-a-half year civil war that has ripped the country apart and sent millions of refugees fleeing – increasing numbers of them to Europe.

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U.S. analysts see indications the Russians have sent tanks, artillery, and armored personnel carriers to an airbase at Latakia, and are making preparations for the arrival of more than 1,000 personnel.

You can see why U.S. officials are unhappy. This is frustrating and probably embarrassing for the Obama administration, which insists that Assad has way too much blood on his hands, and must go. (Also, recall that Putin already bailed Obama out once on Syria, when Russia brokered a deal over Assad’s chemical weapons).   

The Obama administration has little to show for its efforts to train Syrian rebels or roll back Islamic extremists with air strikes. Now here come the Russians, declaring that U.S. policy has been a disaster from the get-go, and the refugee crisis in Europe is proof. 

A bigger Russian role weaves together three of Washington’s biggest foreign policy challenges: The Syrian conflict, testy relations with Russia, and – to the extent that it pushes Moscow closer to Assad’s other big ally, Iran. Add to that concerns about introducing even more weapons into Syria. And the prospect that Russian support will help Assad, who has been losing ground most of this year, hang on.

From a humanitarian perspective, anything that prolongs a conflict that has caused so much suffering is profoundly regrettable. There is also the possibility that the Russians will inadvertently get tangled up with U.S. or other Western military forces that are conducting air strikes against extremists from the Islamic State.

Assad told Russian television this week that he’s not going anywhere. But it’s not as if the war will come to a quick and clean end if he were defeated militarily. The most likely result would be a free-for-all involving armed groups that include Western allies, Islamic extremists and pro-Assad (and pro-Iran) factions trying to carve out territory where they can survive.

Despite Russian declarations that the world should rally behind Assad, it’s not clear how committed Moscow is to the Syrian president himself. 

This intriguing new piece in The Guardian suggests that the Russians were willing to help usher Assad out the door three years ago. They were heavily involved, as well, in recent diplomatic meetings aimed at working out a deal to end the conflict.

The effort went nowhere, apparently because of differences over whether and how Assad should go. But the fact that nearly everyone with a stake in the conflict was willing to talk suggests that the idea isn’t exactly dead. 

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While the Russians have found common cause with Iran in supporting Assad, it’s largely because both countries find Syria useful. It has provided them a means of projecting their own power into the Middle East.

Plus, both Iran and Russia will be mindful of the old adage that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” They are concerned about the threat posed by the Islamic State and other Sunni Muslim extremist groups. To Shiite Iran, they are a threat to other Shiites in the region. Russia is wary of violent Sunni groups that operate in its Caucasus region.

But Iran is too big and ambitious to be a Russian client. It also finds itself largely – and uncomfortably for both countries — on the same side as Washington in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

For Putin, a military buildup in Syria does do a couple of things. It ensures that whatever happens, Russia’s presence in the Middle East won’t be ignored.  And it reinforces that Russia is a player on the global stage.

If he can help Assad remain in power in Damascus – and remain dependent on him – he probably will do it.

If Assad can’t, he might head to the Mediterranean coast, his stronghold, where the Russians could protect him and bolster his negotiating position – but also force him to do their bidding.

If and when Syria gets a new government, a strong military presence means that Assad’s successors, whoever they are, and anyone else at the negotiating table will have to deal with Russia – and whatever Russia wants in return.