Why you should care
Because this is the world’s great tinderbox.
The author was deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004 and currently teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
It’s been three weeks of watching Vladimir Putin begin to make his mark on the situation in Syria. Although it’s still early days, we can already see hints of how his moves are complicating U.S. calculations, changing the force balance in Syria and dividing the region.
Syria holds grave risks for anyone who touches it, but Putin’s situation does not yet feel like the “quagmire” U.S. officials have asserted he is heading into. To be sure, outsiders like Putin can always get sucked into civil wars, but for now he is deploying small numbers — several thousand military personnel and several dozen combat aircraft and other weaponry — which he can easily withdraw, if need be. Putin is projecting the image of a realist who knows how to use power. His argument is simple: A weaker Assad regime would leave little standing in the way of an Islamic State takeover. So we have watched him maneuver to give Assad some breathing space; Putin’s first moves have been to alleviate pressure on Syria, bombing mostly the regime’s non-IS opponents, and coordinating with Iran, which is carrying the burden of ground combat support for Assad.
But the limited nature of Putin’s first steps and his calm justifications don’t mean the U.S.-led coalition likes much of what’s at play — and certainly not the human rights abuses of Putin’s barrel-bombing ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. And lest we think Putin simple: He is motivated by more than shoring up his ally and protecting his country’s Mediterranean naval base at Tartus. Russians remember all too well the denouement of the Balkan crisis in the late 1990s, when NATO operations knocked out their Serbian ally, Slobodan Miloševic, and fashioned a settlement that left Moscow no voice. Putin is determined that such a settlement not take place again; and he surely realizes one is inevitable in the region. Even if he could prop up Assad for a while, the dictator will never again rule all of Syria. Putin knows this and is betting that his military presence — “facts on the ground” in diplomatic parlance — will assure him an influential seat in the eventual bargaining over the future of Syria.
Looming over all this is the Islamic State, with its firm hold on a large chunk of Syria. The conventional view is that Putin wants to destroy all other opponents of the Assad regime in Syria, leaving the West with an awful choice between Assad and the Islamic State. But it should come as no surprise if Putin eventually goes after the IS — Putin’s problem with Islamic extremists may be even larger than America’s. He has this sobering prospect to consider: About 2,400 Russians are known to be fighting within the ranks of IS. Should they return, they may join the ranks of Russia’s ballooning Islamic population, much of which is concentrated in the rebellious Caucasus and is growing at the same rate as the country’s Slavic population is shrinking. (Russia is likely to be about 13 percent Muslim by 2030, according to the Pew Research Center.) So get ready: The U.S. may someday have to respond to a Putin proposal to mount a coordinated attack on the Islamic State.
Meanwhile, the U.S., having abandoned its training program for new anti-IS rebels, has reportedly substituted a plan to shuttle more weapons to existing anti-regime groups in Syria. Given that this will increase their punch against pro-Assad forces directly supported by Moscow, the result could be another complication the U.S. does not need: an escalating proxy war with Russia — something the two countries have managed to avoid since the end of the Cold War.
The U.S. and its allies have also had a long, indecisive debate on establishing a “no-fly” safe zone patrolled by allied aircraft, which would give rebel fighters and refugees a haven from Assad’s air force. But Putin’s surprise intervention is demonstrating, once again, that in foreign affairs, no decision is a decision in itself, and hesitation can be the worst choice of all.
The real loser in the last three week’s events, though, is Syria. The conflict is more polarized than ever, the few moderate groups are taking heavy losses, and the flow of refugees could reach 4.27 million by the end of the year according to the U.N. (up from 100,000 in 2012).
And of course, though all politics may be local, geopolitics never is. Russia’s intervention is roiling the entire region. Sunni Arabs worry that Putin’s alliance with Shiite Iran gives Tehran new clout; Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is so far the only nation forcefully speaking out against Russia. Meanwhile, Egypt, the world’s largest Arab nation, has actually endorsed the Russian intervention, in part because Cairo faces a strong IS-linked insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula.
On top of it all, Iraq is flirting with the idea of asking Russia to help with the IS threat there. Some Iraqi officials think American assistance has been too qualified and hesitant, whereas Russia’s comes with fewer strings attached. Russia has been coy about whether it would go into Iraq. It could reach targets there via its naval assets and, with aerial refueling, its Su-24 and Su-34 aircraft. But Putin may judge it too costly to establish actual bases as he did in Syria, or too risky to operate so close to U.S. forces.
But risk? That’s a pastime Putin seems to enjoy.