Let's make a deal.

Photographer: Salah Malkawi/Getty Images

Putin's Play in Syria

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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What is Vladimir Putin’s true Syria game? Russia has now ensconced a meaningful mini-air force of fighters, bombers and helicopters in an airfield near Latakia, where its sole plausible purpose is to prop up President Bashar Assad's regime. But keeping Assad’s government alive and prolonging the Syrian civil war isn’t an end in itself for Putin, who naturally wants to enhance Russia’s presence in the region.

It's much more likely that the Russian president's true objective is to broker a solution to the Syrian quagmire, one involving a rump Syrian state in which the Alawite minority would be transformed into a majority. Put another way, Putin is backing Assad so that he can sell him out.

QuickTake Syria's Civil War

It’s sometimes said that Putin is getting involved in Syria to distract attention from his continued expansionism in Ukraine. That explanation may be much too simple. Putin is looking for something to trade in exchange for the West allowing Russian consolidation in Ukraine to continue. The name of the game isn't distraction -- it’s leverage.

Looking around the globe, there aren't too many places where Russia can offer the West something it needs. Syria is one place where Russia could potentially help the U.S. and Europe achieve a necessary objective.

The refugee crisis is gradually turning the Syrian civil war into a domestic European issue. The U.S. has a serious interest in ending the civil war because it creates ideal conditions for the expansion of Islamic State.

But neither the U.S. nor Europe has the capacity and willingness to end the Syrian war. The U.S. has used air power to fight Islamic State, but the campaign hasn’t managed to fully contain the growth of the Sunni militant group. At any time over the last several years, the U.S. could’ve turned its bombers on Assad and weakened his regime enough that it probably would have fallen. But the Barack Obama administration has feared, not without reason, that bringing down Assad could lead to an Islamic State takeover. That would almost certainly entail massacres of Alawites, deemed infidels by Islamic State, and the creation of a whole new class of Syrian refugees, who would head for Europe.

Iran, which has been Assad’s major backer, could also at any point in the last several years have taken the initiative to end the war by pressing Assad to accept an Alawite cantonment in part of Syria. But this hasn't been in the Iranian interest, at least as interpreted by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. For one thing, Assad’s Syria is the Iranians’ land bridge to Hezbollah, and a restricted Assad-ruled Syria would have more trouble connecting to the Lebanese militia to deliver supplies, including rockets. For another, Iran was involved in the lengthy nuclear negotiation with the U.S., and had no reason to help its adversary. Perhaps above all, Syria, such as it is, remains an important Iranian bulwark against the Arab Sunni regional majority, and Iran had no reason to allow it to shrink further.

Russia's interests in Syria are different. The once-close historical ties between the Soviet Union and Baathist Syria have been attenuated since the fall of communism, when Russian funding for its erstwhile Middle Eastern proxy dried up. Enough connection remains to give Putin the idea of re-engaging with Syria. But Russia has no fundamental strategic interest in Assad or Syria. Putin is simply taking advantage of a target of opportunity.

Assad must know this -- but he’s also desperate to maintain the existence of his regime, as Putin told reporters (apparently with a chuckle) Monday during Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit. If Putin wants to provide air support to Assad, the Syrian leader isn't in a position to say no.

From this analysis it follows that Putin is increasing support for Assad in order to use the possibility of a brokered peace as a bargaining chip in his troubled relationship with the West. That in turn raises two rather crude, yet all-important, questions: Could Putin deliver? And if he could, would the price (involving Ukraine) be worth it for the U.S. and Europe?

It seems just possible that Putin really could pressure Assad to do a deal that would leave him in charge of a much reduced Alawite cantonment. After all, Assad must realize that he has no endgame to the civil war. Even with all the help Iran might be willing to provide him, he can’t credibly expect to re-establish control over the parts of the country he’s lost. True, the West has been unwilling to remove him for fear of the alternative. And bombing strikes on Islamic State have indirectly helped him stay alive. But that's a far cry from the West agreeing to help him get back his country.

The only even slightly imaginable solution to the civil war is a smaller Syria -- and Assad may reason that he would be better off running that than he would be in exile. What Assad would need to take such a deal would be concrete military guarantees of his territory against Islamic State. Russia could conceivably broker such a guarantee, and participate in it using its air power.

Whether it would be worth it is a harder question still. Recognizing a de facto reduced Syria might leave the West no worse off in its fight against Islamic State than it is now. And it might simplify the war against the group. But it could also strengthen Islamic State, giving it hope of long-term recognition in the Sunni majority areas of the former Syria.

And it would mean accepting Putin’s aggression in Ukraine as part of the deal, whether spoken or unspoken. This would consolidate Putin as a dangerous foreign policy expansionist -- but also as a foreign policy virtuoso.

Yet the human cost of the Syrian civil war is so immense -- and still growing -- that it would be foolish to reject the possibility of a Russian deal outright. Putin is making his play. It will now be up to the U.S. to see where it leads, and to see whether Obama can leave office having begun the process of re-establishing some sort of stability in at least part of Syria.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net