In 1992, not long after the Soviet Union collapsed, I wandered through the massive Russian Embassy compound in Damascus.
As a center of Soviet power off limits to Westerners, it had been a beehive of activity, with about 5,000 civilian and military advisers. Now it was virtually deserted.
As news flows in about the new Russian military buildup in Syria, I can’t help thinking how delicious this reversal must be to Vladimir Putin, who has openly rued the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin’s yearning to re-exert Soviet – whoops, I mean Russian — global influence is no secret.
So why is it so hard for President Barack Obama to understand the Russian leader’s intentions in the Middle East?
Having blindsided U.S. officials with his sudden infusion of tanks, planes and missiles into Syria, Putin urged the world this week to rally behind the vicious regime of Bashar Assad. In a UN speech, Putin proposed a “broad international coalition” (no doubt led by Moscow) that would fight terrorism — like “the anti-Hitler coalition” in World War II.
There’s only one problem with this formula: Neither Putin nor Assad is interested in taking on the Islamic State. Indeed, the Russian president knows well but cares not that Assad’s war crimes against civilians have fueled Sunni support for the Islamic State.
Rather, Moscow seeks to firm up Assad’s wobbly hold on power while building an unprecedented air and naval presence on the Mediterranean and projecting himself as a world leader. He also hopes to corral Obama into helping him achieve that goal.
What’s astonishing is how the administration has failed to read Putin. Despite frequent meetings between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, U.S. officials were caught by surprise by Moscow’s military actions in Syria. They were equally startled by Russian air strikes there on Wednesday — aimed not at the Islamic State but at anti-Assad militias, including some backed by Washington and its allies.
The administration’s somnolence can only be explained by its wishful-thinking policy toward Moscow. In 2013, Putin saved Obama from having to act on his own red line and bomb Syrian military sites after Assad killed more than 1,000 civilians with chemical weapons.
Seeing Obama waffle and turn to a reluctant Congress to green-light the strikes, Putin offered him a face-saver by pressing Assad to give up (most of) his chemical weapons. Never mind that Assad continues to kill tens of thousands of civilians with barrel bombs dropped on hospitals and markets, and still uses chlorine gas shells that aren’t covered by the chemical weapons accord.
Despite administration denials, some officials still seem to nurture false hopes that Russia can rescue Obama’s failed Syria policy. They dream that Moscow will squeeze Assad to negotiate a peace deal in which the Syrian leader agrees to exit after a transition and be replaced by a government of regime and opposition figures. With an inclusive government, so the thinking goes, Sunni support for the Islamic State would fade.
Putin’s U.N. speech and Moscow’s military actions in Syria make clear that this hope is a pipe dream. Like Assad, the Russian leader considers any opposition to the Syrian regime to be the work of terrorists. To him, the 2011 peaceful uprising of middle-class Syrians who sought a better government was nothing but a Western plot.
So, as Wednesday’s bombing made clear, Putin will help Assad’s efforts to push back against non-Islamic State militias, while protecting his hold on Damascus and the Syrian coast. Russian air support will make it hard for Arab states to supply anti-Assad militias.
As for the Islamic State, the Syrian military hasn’t fought it in the past and won’t in the future. Assad needs the Islamic State to survive so he can claim that the world needs him. As for the Russians, they won’t commit ground troops to fight Islamic State jihadis. In the words of Andrei Kolesnikov, of the Carnegie Endowment’s Moscow Center: “I think Russia is not ready to fight a thousand kilometers from its borders. It would be a repetition of the Afghanistan story.”
Instead, Putin has made his demands clear: The West and Sunni Arab states must cease their opposition to Assad, and press their Syrian militia allies to accept the status quo ante at peace talks.
But this scenario, too, is a pipe dream. Syria’s Sunnis will never again accept a regime that has committed staggering atrocities against tens of thousands of civilians. Nor can Syria’s myriad non-Islamic State militias easily be shut down. The fighting could continue for a long time, with the Islamic State being the main beneficiary.
Putin probably knows his Plan A can’t work, so I suspect that (unlike Obama) he has a Plan B: Forget diplomacy. Solidify Assad’s hold on Damascus and the coast by force. Create an Assad-stan on the Mediterranean, which will become a territorial base from which Russia can exert powerful new regional influence.
Let Sunnis kill each other, let the refugees keep flowing. Wait for the West and Arab states to come begging for intelligence and cooperation against the Islamic State.
The only slim hope for surcease is that all sides might agree to a temporary ceasefire in place — but the Russians’ arrival may rule out this option.
In Syria, Obama based his hopes on diplomacy without providing any military support to moderates, which might have made a difference three years ago. Now Putin claims to be interested in diplomacy while backing his Syrian ally with force. He is too cynical for dreams.