In Syria, the joke’s on Washington

November 24, 2015
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (C) attend a meeting on Russian air force's activity in Syria at the national defence control centre in Moscow, Russia, November 17, 2015. Russia said on Tuesday it had stepped up air strikes against Islamist militants in Syria with long-range bombers and cruise missiles after the Kremlin said it wanted retribution for those responsible for blowing up a Russian airliner over Egypt. REUTERS/Alexei Nikolskyi/SPUTNIK/Kremlin ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. - RTS7KOT

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (C) attend a meeting on Russian air force’s activity in Syria at the national defence control centre in Moscow, Russia, November 17, 2015. REUTERS/Alexei Nikolskyi/SPUTNIK/Kremlin

When Russia began its military campaign in Syria, the Obama administration and its allies quickly claimed it was a disaster in the making. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper called Russian President Vladimir Putin “impulsive” and said he was “winging it” in Syria with no long-term strategy. Former United States Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul ridiculed Putin’s “supposed strategic genius,” arguing the Russian leader “cannot restore Assad’s authority over the whole country.” Even President Barack Obama joined the chorus, publicly warning Putin that he risked an Afghanistan-style Russian “quagmire” in Syria.

It turns out, though, that the joke’s on Washington: Thanks to shrewd tactics plus tailwinds from the Paris attacks, Syria is turning into a major strategic victory for Putin. Here’s what he’s accomplished and how he did it.

For starters, as Putin explained in both 2013 and during his recent United Nations speech, what he fears most is power vacuums filled by extremists. As Putin stated early in Russia’s bombing campaign, Russia did not plan major ground operations, since its goal was simply “to stabilize the legitimate government” to prevent its immediate overthrow. For this reason, as director of the Carnegie Moscow Center Dimitri Trenin argues, Putin never meant to help Bashar al-Assad achieve complete military victory, but rather to stave off Syria’s collapse.

Putin has already met this first objective. The Assad regime is no longer in imminent danger, and with Russian air support it has actually re-taken key areas in central Syria and Aleppo. As a result, the regime’s key territory in its Alawite heartland no longer faces the risk of being overrun.

Putin’s second achievement has been to expand Russian military and political influence throughout the Middle East. Russia established a number of bases in the west of Syria while also expanding its naval base at Tartus — Moscow’s only permanent naval presence outside Russia and a key refueling depot for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Putin can now project Russian military strength throughout the Levant and eastern Mediterranean.

Putin has also succeeded in making himself indispensable to each of the three major power centers in the Middle East. In a move that caught the United States off-guard, Putin established a de facto alliance with the leading Shi’ite powers in the region, including Iran, Iraq, Hezbollah and Syria. The five powers set up joint operation centers in Baghdad and Damascus to share intelligence and coordinate military actions. Iraq also surprised Washington when it allowed Russian planes to transport military gear through its airspace on the way to Syria after NATO member Bulgaria refused Russia entrance to its airspace. On the frontlines, Russia provides aerial cover while the Shi’ite powers focus on the ground war, and the alliance has advanced to the point where Russia even transports Iraqi Shi’ite militias to the fighting in Syria.

Perhaps counterintuitively, Russia’s decision to align itself with the Middle East’s Shi’ite powers has actually increased Moscow’s influence with the Sunnis and Israelis. A number of key figures from the Sunni states recently visited Moscow, and the most powerful man in the Sunni world — Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud — will likely make the pilgrimage to the Kremlin soon to discuss a solution to the Syrian war.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly read the tea leaves, too. Alarmed by Russia’s burgeoning alliance with its archenemies Iran and Hezbollah, Netanyahu immediately hopped on a plane to Moscow to meet Putin. Netanyahu’s immediate concern was to ask Putin to respect Israel’s “red lines” on the transfer of advanced arms to Hezbollah — a request to which Putin agreed. While Netanyahu appeared reassured in Moscow, a leading Israeli commentator described Netanyahu’s visit as signaling the start of a “post-American Middle East.”

Putin has also broken through the ring of diplomatic isolation imposed on him by the West after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. A comparison between last year’s G20 summit in Australia and this year’s event in Turkey shows the magnitude of the change. Putin was practically persona non grata in Australia, and with Western leaders browbeating him about Ukraine, Putin fled the conference early to — as he put it — get some extra sleep. In Turkey, by contrast, Putin was on every Western leader’s “must-see” list, and photos of Putin huddling over coffee with Obama became the defining images of the event.

While the Paris attacks are the proximate cause of this Western interest, Russia’s military commitment in Syria positioned it to take advantage of the West’s newfound focus on confronting Islamic State. France and Russia already coordinated joint strikes against Islamic State positions in Raqqa, and after speaking with French President François Hollande, Putin ordered the Russian Navy to make contact with the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle heading toward the Persian Gulf, while also suggesting that the French and Russian navies develop joint sea and air strategies.

On the diplomatic front, after long demanding that “Assad must go,” Obama now appears willing to compromise. Diplomatic meetings in Vienna between the United States, Russia and other nations produced an agreement on an 18-month plan to establish a new Syrian government based on democratic elections. The parties also agreed to develop a master list of all terrorist groups in Syria — a step Putin had long demanded.

Obama then dropped his generally hostile line towards Putin, praising him as a “constructive partner” in efforts to resolve the Syrian war. Obama even hinted at the possibility of direct American-Russian military coordination in Syria — a step previously rejected by the United States — stating that “more opportunities for coordination” had arisen.

Finally, cooperation in Syria may lead to Putin’s ultimate geopolitical goal: an end to the European Union’s Ukraine-related sanctions against Russia. The head of the French Senate just demanded an end to sanctions, echoing a number of EU leaders — including Greece and Slovenia — who had called for this previously.

We should not forget the Russian-Western rapprochement remains brand new. Existing Western rifts with Russia may still return to the fore if the two sides diverge on Syria or if the European Union extends sanctions against Russia in December — something which is still on course to occur.

In the short term, though, Putin’s bold move into Syria has flipped the world’s geopolitical script.

22 comments

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Very nice encapsulation of the situation. It will be interesting to see how the EU refugee situation plays out in European public and government’s attitude toward USA leadership of NATO agenda, especially when the Ukrainians start their refugee influx into Europe when their own fake government in Kiev collapses, and after multinationals have bought up Ukraine for pennies on the dollar.

Posted by Lavrentii | Report as abusive

Excellent. Well written insightful analysis. To complete the picture one must include Putin and El Sisi’s rapprochement which sent Obama scurrying to salvage his relations with the Egyptians. They restored the 1.3 billion largely military aid and even threw in a token of three F16s.
Had Obama been less wish you washy, drawing Red Lines then backing away. Had he not surrounded himself with primarily
Fundamentalist Islamists as advisors on the Middle East much of his debacle in the region could have been avoided. It didn’t help to have had Hilary Clinton on his team. She rather bungled things badly with her overbearing attitude.
Now the US is falling over itself to mend bridges they themselves destroyed.
Obama’ s foreign policy in general and the Middle East and towards Russia in particular has been an unmitigated disaster.
Even Israel a spoiled younger sibling to the US was nearly set adrift.
One cannot help wondering if all the rumours about Obama’s Islamist leanings aren’t true?
America might have been better off had he stayed an academe.

Posted by pharoah | Report as abusive

Putin is taking great risks. But the word “risk” implies that you can also lose your game. After the Russian plane was shot down by the Turks, the situation has got even riskier.

Posted by pbgd | Report as abusive

For once I agree with the Putin-bots and the writer. However, one key piece of Russian strategy must be dealt with sooner or later: All men are mortal; Putin is a man; Therefore, Putin is mortal–What happens after the neo-Tzar shows his mortality?

Posted by Bendigo | Report as abusive

Could someone answer if this article was written before or after the shoot-down of the Russian fighter?

Posted by teocopos | Report as abusive

Hey Reuters, some comrade journalism for comrade capitalism?.. )

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

“ALL
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

This opinion piece is valid only for the short term. It will be interesting to hear the author’s argument for how Russia and Iran’s interests intersect in the long term. Ultimately, these are partnerships of convenience. Russia, Iran, Syria and Egypt do not have common interests. For one, Egypt is among the many Arab countries allied against a nuclear Iran. Does Mr. Cohen really think that Russia will support the expansion of fundamental Islamist rule under Hezbollah?

Ultimately, all these countries need to have friendly relationships with the West in order to develop their markets and economies. These power plays will not accomplish that. The author is said to have played a role in the economic development of the former Soviet Union. What opinion does he have of the long term economic consequences of these power play for Russia and its so-called allies?

Their economic prospects are dismal.

Posted by cleanthes | Report as abusive

No flight zone over Syria for any other airplanes other than Russian is coming soon. No more attacks on the Kurd’s by the Terrorist supporting Turkey caliphate.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Suppose Putin shoots down 2 Turkish planes (one way to avoid this is for Turkey to ground its entire air force) and take out the Turkish missile site that shot down the Russian plane. What will NATO do?

Posted by Laughinglotus | Report as abusive

Excellent, Josh Cohen!

What’s absent from this stand-out read? Refreshingly so…….US Propaganda!

Thank you.

Posted by SaveRMiddle | Report as abusive

It’s about time the West ended its mindless antagonism against Russia. Fact is, the US, Saudis, Turks and the Gulf states have fomented Islamic fundamentalist terrorism since the 1980s and are responsible for the creation of ISIS (formerly al-Qaeda in Iraq, composed of the disbanded Iraqi military). Putin increasingly seems to be a voice of reason, defending the boundaries and people of Russia, whereas the US and its allies are bombing and changing regimes for oil pipelines and profits.

Posted by cautious123 | Report as abusive

On the surface Mr. Putin is gaining the respect from the world.. With the Russian economy in dire situation can he afford of the prolonged involvement in the Middle East, which will turn out to be the rope around his neck. Americans failed to learn a lesson from Russia in her involvement in Afghanistan; Do Russians ignore the lesson of American involvement in Iraq? The history does repeat itself.

Posted by jlpeng | Report as abusive

Like any dictator, Putin is desperate. For his “presidency” is equal to his survival.

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

Now another success in the rescue of the pilot of the downed Russian jet. Syrian special forces managed, without months of planning, the rescue and this shows how effective the coordination between Syrian forces and Russia can be.

Obama brags about the US-led coalition – but the entry of Russia (at the invitation of Assad) has done more to harm ISIS in months than the US-led coalition has done in two years. Of course, Obama’s priority is “regime change” in Syria – NOT destroying ISIS.

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive

Putin has acted strategically well and as such USA ‘s tactic of using ISIS for strategic gain on oil fields has come to a halt Also USA finds its strategy to limit Russia’s economy by controlling oil prices will fail if Russia increases dominance and so they now enter the war in the name of sacrifice of France.
But then Putin is acting intelligently but USA will try to malign Putin in every possible way in which Turkey incident is only an addition.

Posted by Nisachar | Report as abusive

Putin in response to Turkey’s miscue now has turned his full attention to the Rebels Turkey has been supporting. The Kurds may have the help they have been asking for. The shooting down their bomber now has Moscow arming Syria with advanced SAM’s. We may be hat in hand asking for permission to carry out Sorties. The French have already teamed up. Obama just offered more intel.

Posted by Nishiishi | Report as abusive

Maybe now that Russia and France are talking about cooperating on ISIS, the editors on Reuters have finally given the go ahead to publish articles to support the sensible approach instead of just towing the US line.

Posted by Arry | Report as abusive

Everyone seems to forget we had 2 decades of peace with Moscow. Mostly thrown away by sanctions.

Posted by Lyn4U | Report as abusive

Put more simply, “the jokes IN Washington.”

Posted by codeman1 | Report as abusive

When dividing up the spoils of war, Syria has always been the booby prize.

Posted by AlbertRoss4 | Report as abusive

If Putin could run for president in the USA he would win in a landslide!

Posted by mjs7777xqz | Report as abusive