Putin's Endgame in Syria

Russia's military is off to a strong start in Syria. Extracting itself will be harder.

In need of an ending.

Photographer: Sameer Al-Doumy/Getty Images

If Russia's leaders are concerned about their ability to succeed in Syria, they aren't showing it. They may have to rethink their approach, though, if they want to bring their intervention to a quick end.

From President Vladimir Putin on down, Russian officials have reveled this week in comparing their military intervention to the failure of U.S.-led air strikes to push back Islamic State. "Our partners did not do anything efficient and the first actions of our forces have already yielded some results," Putin told the annual Valdai conference in Sochi on Thursday. His message: Russia is back, and a more useful global player than the U.S.

Even so, Russia's Syria policy mirrors some of the inconsistencies that have bedeviled the U.S.

For one, Russia insists that its military operation should quickly lead to talks on a political settlement -- something that is unlikely to happen if it keeps treating all armed opposition to President Bashar Al-Assad as terrorist. This approach is dictated by Russia's goal of saving Assad, who is providing the ground forces needed to follow up airstrikes and take territory. 

Assad's biggest fight is with a whole assortment of rebels in the west, rather than in the east where Islamic State is concentrated. So Russian airstrikes have largely left Islamic State alone while attacking all other Assad opponents under the same IS label. It isn't that Russian officials don't know the difference; they just don't believe it's meaningful. If you take up arms against the state, you are a terrorist. 

This closely tracks Russia's experience in Chechnya, where it faced an independence movement, part of which radicalized to become Islamist terrorists. Putin came to power in Russia just months after the start of the second Chechen war in 1999 and crushed all resistance, installing a loyal warlord to govern the aftermath.

"One shouldn't play with words differentiating between moderate and immoderate terrorists. What is the difference?" Putin said on Thursday. He went on to say that the U.S.-led coalition in Syria was failing because it was trying to play what he called "a double game," declaring war on some terrorists while working with others.

Second, Putin won't give up Assad to entice the Sunni opposition to the negotiating table. Inviting the Syrian President to Moscow this week was a big symbolic step to show he has Putin's personal support and that -- unlike the U.S. -- Russia doesn't abandon its allies.

Even if Putin did want to trade Assad away, says Vitaly Naumkin, Russia's internationally respected authority on the Middle East, "the Iranians are absolutely opposed." And given that Putin is working with Iran in Syria (he had the chairman of the Iranian Parliament, Ali Larijani, to support him in his America-bashing on Thursday's panel), what Iran wants matters.

Third, Russia doesn't want to partition Syria, a move that could shorten the war dramatically. Putin committed himself to Syria's unity in a statement after his meeting with Assad, and described partition as a recipe for perpetual future conflicts.

Finally, Russia's intervention in Syria is designed to be limited to airstrikes and short -- around four months. This contrasts sharply with Russia's maximalist goals. It appears to want the campaign to end like its war in Chechnya, with the opposition "terrorists" utterly defeated, and loyalist Sunnis co-opted to help pacify the country by brute force. Yet that would most probably require a long military campaign, especially given that -- unlike Chechnya -- Syria's war is sectarian and the opposition is supported by external powers.

"We are pretty dependent on whether they can succeed on the ground," said Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of Russia's Council on Foreign and Defense Policy. "Is the Syrian army really fit enough?"

So how to shorten the war?

The air campaign doesn't have to continue until a cease-fire is reached, according to Naumkin. It just has to change the balance of forces on the ground enough that opposition representatives can be brought into a revived political process. There are some signs Russian officials understand that can't happen if they just assume that all opposition Sunnis are terrorists. They have begun to reach out to commanders of the Free Syrian Army, which until recently they dismissed as a U.S. fiction. Naumkin is well-aware that the Southern Front, a group of 50-plus militias in southern Syria that is working with the U.S. and Jordan against Islamic State, has some potential in terms of finding moderate militants to engage in talks on a truce.

Putin said he had asked Assad this week whether, if Russia could find moderate rebels willing to join the fight against the terrorists, the government in Damascus would agree. It wasn't obvious Putin believed in the possibility, but he said Assad was on board.

Perhaps Putin seems anxious to get the U.S. involved in part because he knows that Russia, if it wants to exit quickly, will have to find some way of negotiating with Sunni militias able to deliver cease-fires on the ground. On Friday, the foreign ministers of Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the U.S. are due to meet to discuss the issue.

So long as Russia was pretending that all rebels are Islamic State, it made little sense for the U.S. to get involved. But if Putin is willing to make distinctions, Russia and the U.S. might be able to help each other out of their conflicted Syrian policies.

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

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