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Putin’s Syrian Gambit: Sharper Elbows, Bigger Footprint, Stickier Wicket

By John W. Parker Strategic Perspectives 25

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July 6, 2017 — DOWNLOAD PDF

Executive Summary

Strategic Perspectives 25Thanks in large part to Russia’s military intervention, Syrian president Bashar al-Asad’s fortunes have made a remarkable recovery since May/June 2015. Russia, together with the Lebanese Hizballah, Iran, and Iranian-organized Shia militias from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere, has succeeded in averting Asad’s military defeat. What Russian president Vladimir Putin has accomplished in Syria is important for American national security interests and policy in the region because it frames some of the hard choices Washington must now make. 

Russia has profited from a hard core of Alawite and Christian support for Asad inside Syria. At the same time, U.S. reluctance to become militarily involved in Syria facilitated the move of Russian forces into the country. Russia also benefited from the disunity among the diverse opposition to Asad and their external patrons. While Saudi Arabia and Turkey were both early proponents of ousting Asad, Saudi Arabia is now more focused on defeating Houthi rebels in Yemen, and Turkey on fighting Kurdish separatist forces in northern Syria. In return for help from Putin in resolving its Kurdish problem, Turkey in 2016 helped Putin resolve Russia’s Aleppo problem. 

As President Donald Trump considers and implements a way forward on working with Russia in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and toward peace in Syria, events of the past several years underscore several fundamental constraints under which Putin will be operating and some challenges that have been overstated. 

First, Russia will find it hard to deliver Asad’s agreement to any political arrangement that requires him to step aside to bring the conflict to an end. Asad plays Russia off against Iran and the Lebanese Hizballah, placing them all on the same level and extending no preference to Putin for Russia’s contribution to his survival. 

Second, Tehran will not be keen to see its leverage in Damascus diminish and that of Moscow grow. Tehran will support Asad in his resistance to any Russian pressure that would impact what Tehran sees as its existential interests in Syria as a vital link in Iran's land bridge to the Lebanese Hizballah. 

Third, while working with Iran militarily in Syria, Russia has successfully pursued engagement with most major Sunni powers in the Middle East, most interestingly Saudi Arabia, as well as with Israel. However unpopular on “the street,” Putin and Gulf Sunni royals appear to have no complexes about dealing with each other. Fourth, Putin does not want Syria to be a “negative” issue going into the next Russian presidential elections, scheduled for March 2018. This may be the major reason he has wanted to “solve” Aleppo so quickly in 2016 and pivot again to peacemaking efforts more prominence. Cooperation with the Trump administration and renewed American treatment of Russia as a “respected equal” would make Syria a more manageable electoral issue for Putin. 

As Washington continues to formulate and fine-tune a new approach to fighting ISIS and terrorism under the Trump administration, this study makes the following policy recommendations. First, the United States must cast aside sentiment and strictly prioritize its objectives and preferred or acceptable outcomes. 

Second, the United States should work toward a Syria that remains unified even as the American fight against ISIS benefits from Syrian Kurdish military prowess. The Kurds should be part of the mix in political negotiations going forward but only in the context of a unified Syria at the end of the process. 

Third, the United States should explore the military pros and cons of more robust cooperation with Russia in Syria, without conceding anything in advance on Asad’s future or Iran’s place in the region. As it did on April 7, 2017, in response to Damascus’s sarin gas attack on Khan Shaykhun, the United States needs to be prepared selectively and judiciously to strike at Syrian regime forces from time to time to inhibit their attacks on nonterrorist opposition fighters and civilian populations. 

Fourth, Washington should work quietly with Moscow toward diminishing Iranian leverage in Syria and the region. That said, while Moscow probably hopes that its weight in Syria will increase over time at Iran’s expense, Russia has little interest in sharing its influence gains in Syria with the United States. 

Finally, with or without Russia, the United States should engage militarily in Syria more robustly. Besides being necessary to fight ISIS more effectively, this will also help reverse the view that began to take hold in the region during the Barack Obama administration that the United States is a declining power, and encourage regional capitals to rebalance their relations with Moscow. 

This paper is based on information that was current as of June 6, 2017.

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