Russia’s recent buildup in Syria includes battle tanks, military advisers, security guards and portable housing units for the building of a military base in the coastal town of Latakia (a stronghold of Bashar Assad). White House spokesman Josh Earnest claims that the motivation driving Vladimir Putin’s renewed support of Assad “are rather hard to discern.” But are they?
After the conclusion of the nuclear deal between world powers and Iran, President Barack Obama declared that he had been pleasantly surprised by Moscow’s constructive role in amending Iran’s positions. As I explained in a previous column, Russia has an economic interest in ending Iran’s international isolation in order to build up a natural gas cartel. To guarantee Tehran’s cooperation on future coordinated gas exports, Russia must maintain Iranian interests in Syria – and that means preserving Assad’s partial control of what is left of Syria.
Putin’s decision also seems to have been influenced by the inconclusive results of US-led airstrikes against the Islamic State (IS). In September 2014, Obama announced the launching of airstrikes against IS to “degrade, and ultimately destroy” it. One year later exactly, this objective is far from being achieved. The Islamic State is holding its ground and has even expanded in the past few months. Putin seems to be calculating that, if the US is not able to degrade (let alone destroy) IS after one year of military action, then Russia must take care of its own interests in Syria by preserving what is left of Assad’s strongholds. True, Britain, France and Australia have joined, or are about to join, the US airstrikes against IS, but Putin has good reasons to doubt that this will constitute a game-changer.
Assad’s recent setbacks (which include the loss of an important airbase south of Aleppo on September 9) are a source of concern both for Putin and Obama, though for different reasons. For Putin, those setbacks are a clear indication that Assad could now be gone at any time. For Obama, it reveals the inefficiency of his military strategy, since the airbase south of Aleppo was captured by Jabhat al-Nusra, which is the target of American airstrikes.
Putin obviously realizes that no amount of Russian weaponry will enable Assad to reconquer all of Syria. Even if such an option existed, doing so would dangerously escalate tensions with the West. Like his predecessors, Putin knows his limits. But he also knows that a de facto partition of Syria is likely to have one thing in common with the de facto partition of the Ukraine: the West will oppose it in words and even in deeds (with economic sanctions), but acquiesce to it for lack of better options. In Syria, such de facto partition will be along the lines of an Alawi-dominated coastal strip that will hook up with a Hezbollah-controlled southern Lebanon.
Putin also understands that the West has cornered itself into a Catch 22 situation with Iran. If the Obama Administration doesn’t want to derail the nuclear deal from the onset, it cannot openly challenge Iran’s fundamental interests. In the Middle East, those interests include the partial maintenance of Assad. On September 7, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif dissipated doubts about Iran’s endgame in Syria by declaring that “those who set conditions about the Syrian president should be blamed for the continued war.” As for European leaders, they claim to want Assad’s departure for the benefit of “democratic forces,” but they will be the first to acquiesce to Assad’s maintenance if doing so proves to be the only way to end the flow of Syrian refugees. If Assad loses Aleppo, more Syrian refugees will flee for Europe.
Putin’s motivations are thus not “hard to discern” at all. At this point, he has every reason to believe that the West will not defeat IS but that IS might soon defeat Assad. Putin, moreover, understands that the Obama Administration is so determined to implement the nuclear deal with Iran that it will be tolerant of Iran’s support for Assad. As for Europe, Putin knows that it will agree to Assad’s continued rule if he proves able and willing to end the flood of Syrian refugees. Putin is a shrewd tactician who has become an expert in playing Western fears, inconsistencies and duplicity to his advantage.