Welcome to Syria, Mr Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin is combining his military move into Syria with a diplomatic effort to convince the United States that Russia and Bashar Assad are indispensable in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). Putin wants Washington to acknowledge that Russia is a great power and cannot be ignored, in particular in the Middle East.
How should Washington react?
The forward operating base the Russians are deploying near Latakia certainly represents a major escalation of Moscow’s engagement in Syria. At the very least, there is a need to ensure that Russian air operations do not come into conflict with coalition combat missions. No one needs an incident in which Russian and US forces come to blows. The coordination to ensure this does not happen can be done quietly out of the public eye.
It is not clear whether the Russians intend to use their deployment to attack insurgents in Syria. Their base could be a defensive move, one intended to keep western Syria safe for the Russian naval facility at Tartus as well as for the regime’s Alawite supporters and possibly for Assad if he is forced from Damascus. For the moment at least, the housing being built can accommodate about 1,500 troops. That’s a far bigger commitment than the few advisers Russia maintained in Syria in the past but it is not a large enough force to make much of a difference in the ongoing civil war.
If they do decide to engage insurgents, the Russians are unlikely to distinguish between what the US-led coalition thinks of as relative moderates and jihadi extremists associated with ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra. Nor are they likely to have much more success than the coalition against the extremists, unless they deploy far more substantial ground forces. From the coalition perspective, this Russian deployment is small and aimed, at least in part, at the wrong targets (the forces the coalition considers to be moderates).
So should the United States resist the Russian deployment, negotiate with Moscow or do something else?
There is an argument for not doing much to either foil or accommodate Moscow. There is little risk that 1,500 Russians can accomplish much on the military side beyond protecting western Syria from being overrun and the Alawites slaughtered. Any damage the Russians do to relative moderates will not be decisive and it is at least as likely that the extremists will inflict significant losses on the Russians, than the other way around.
As for the Russian argument that we should all unite with Assad to defeat the terrorists? That suggestion is not really worthy of a response.
Assad and his forces have made it clear for years that their real enemies are the relative moderates that the coalition is supporting.
Assad has no realistic possibility of re-establishing control over all of Syria. His military tactics of besieging civilian areas and terrorising the population with barrel bombs have done far more to generate terrorist recruits than to reduce their numbers. Russian forces, who honed their tactics in Chechnya, may kill a lot of people but won’t be any better at counter-insurgency warfare.
If there are to be negotiations, the coalition would do best to continue to insist that they be based on the June 2012 UN communiqué, which called for a mutually agreeable transitional governing body with full executive authority. There is no reason to abandon that oblique formula, which in practice precludes Assad from power even if it does not name him.
So rather than take the bait, Washington should keep its cool and resist the temptation to overreact. The Russian deployment would not have been necessary if Assad were strong and getting stronger. Moscow is already overstretched in Ukraine. Letting the Russians double down on a bad bet in Syria is the right approach.