Michael Williams
Distinguished Visiting Fellow
The Russian president would be wise to use his new-found leverage to bring Assad to the negotiating table before the casualties mount.
Vladimir Putin attends large-scale military exercises at Donguzsky Range on 19 September 2015 in Orenburg, Russia. Photo by Getty Images.Vladimir Putin attends large-scale military exercises at Donguzsky Range on 19 September 2015 in Orenburg, Russia. Photo by Getty Images.

There are few precedents in modern Russian, or even Soviet, history for Vladimir Putin’s dramatic intervention in Syria. The projection of force at that distance from the homeland is something that previous occupiers of the Kremlin have studiously avoided for the most part. Leonid Brezhnev sent the Red Army into Afghanistan in 1979, starting that country’s spiral into violence that 40 years later it still has yet to escape. But Afghanistan bordered the Soviet Union and was not a conflict in which Western powers were substantially involved at that time. In the 1960s there were thousands of Soviet military advisers in Egypt brought there by President Gamel Abdel Nasser, but they were never in a combat role. In 1972 following Anwar Sadat’s assumption of the presidency they were all expelled. Even Stalin in 1950 chose not to follow Mao Zedong in sending Soviet troops to join the Korean War.

New facts on the ground

The history underlines the drama of what has happened in the past week. On Monday, President Putin flew to New York to meet with US President Barack Obama at the annual UN General Assembly, a meeting of world leaders that the Russian president has avoided for the past 10 years. Though the situation in Ukraine remains unresolved, there can be little doubt that Syria was the heart of the conversation. Russia had already deployed ground attack aircraft, helicopter gunships, the cruiser Moskva as well as marines to the Latakia/Tartous area of northern Syria, a bastion of support for beleaguered President Bashar al-Assad. There can be little doubt that Putin told the US president that these assets were to be used in the near future. In fact, within 48 hours the Sukhoi 29 fighter bombers were striking targets including ISIS in al-Rakaa province; but they also hit other groups, including some supported by the United States and its principal allies, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Russia’s foray into the four-year-old Syrian war has had a dramatic effect in the Middle East despite the substantial risks Putin has taken. The Russian leader appears to have a strategy while Obama looks to be struggling, underlined by a defensive press appearance at the White House last Friday. The Russian leader has created ‘facts on the ground’ and has guaranteed himself a place at any final settlement of the Syrian war because Russia has become a party to the war.

More immediately the Russian intervention has succeeded in bolstering President Assad’s forces which had appeared under growing threat in recent months. Secondly, President Putin has assured the Syrian leader’s role in any transition process. While Sunni Arab leaders and the West had hoped to avoid this, their failure to develop a robust political and military strategy to overthrow Assad makes this inevitable and the lessons of modern war underline this fact. After all, the West negotiated with then Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic over not one but two wars − Bosnia in 1996 and Kosovo in 1998 − and this despite repeated killings by ethnic Serb forces of Bosnian and Kosovar civilians, including the notorious Srebrenica massacre of 1996.

President Putin’s intervention remains however a gamble. At the moment Russian ground troops appear to have only a defensive role, but how long will that last? As the great 19th century Prussian general Helmuth von Moltke once observed, ‘No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.’ There are many, including in Moscow, who will remember Russia’s casualties and sacrifices in the Afghan war before their withdrawal in 1989. If the Russian leader is wise, he will seek to limit his country’s intervention and use the drama of the past week to put pressure on President Assad to come to the negotiating table. On a visit to Lebanon this past week it was clear that Hezbollah, the Syrian regime’s most important ally in the field, is taking serious numbers of casualties. Moreover, it cannot but be troubled by the long-term damage inflicted in a war where it is killing fellow Arabs and Muslims, rather than being the much vaunted ‘Mukamawah’ (resistance) to Israel. A potent fighting force, as demonstrated in the 2006 war with Israel, in the past four years the vicious sectarian conflict in Syria has frittered away the Sunni support and respect it used to enjoy.

Shifting sands

But the impact on the Arab world of the Russian intervention is wider than Lebanon. For the major Sunni opponents of the Assad regime (Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey), the sharp contrast between President Putin’s ‘activism’ and the apparent vacillation of the US president − following so closely on the heels of the nuclear deal with Iran − is profound. Another sign of change in the region is the fast developing relationship between President Putin and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, with the Russian leader visiting Cairo earlier this year to take advantage of weakening US influence. Israel too made its position clear by a surprise visit of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Moscow in late September, where Putin received him at 24 hours notice. The leading daily Israeli Haaretz chose to sum the visit up with the headline: ‘With Moscow visit, Netanyahu Signals Era of post-American Middle East’. In order to recapture lost ground, the United States will need to move quickly in the Middle East and bringing peace to Syria urgently needs its attention.

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