Is the Syrian Gambit a Strategic Dead End for Putin?

FILE - In this March 4, 2012 file photo, Syrians hold posters of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin during a pro-Syrian government protest in front of the Russian Embassy in Damascus, Syria. (AP Photo/Muzaffar Salman, File)
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Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter@JosephVMicallef.

Russia intervened in the Syrian Civil War in September of 2015, with the deployment of a range of 65 bombers and fighters, 16 attack helicopters and roughly 4,000 personnel, including a contingent of Russian Special Forces, to Syria. At the time, the Assad government was experiencing significant losses to the Syrian rebels and seemed on the verge of losing control of the portions of western Aleppo still under its control. Bashar al-Assad had been a long-time Russian and, prior to that, Soviet client. In addition, Syria housed a Russian naval base at Latakia -- the only foreign Russian base outside of those located in some of the former republics of the USSR.

The intervention was in sharp contrast to the indecisiveness that had characterized the Obama Administration's policy in Syria. It underscored the impression of rising Russian power and influence in the Middle East. Beyond the obvious benefit of supporting a long-time ally of Moscow and maintaining its access to its naval base and possibly securing additional military facilities there, the Russian action was also prompted by the Kremlin's perception that an expanded role in Syria would provide additional leverage in any negotiation with the US and its European allies over the future of Ukraine and over the elimination of the economic sanctions that had been imposed by the US and the EU following the Russian seizure of Crimea and its ongoing support of secessionists in eastern Ukraine's Donbass basin.

Both publicly, and in more extensive private meetings, Russian diplomats indicated that Russia's expanded role in Syria could help stem the tide of Syrian refugees then pouring across the EU's borders. The Kremlin also dangled the prospect of an expanded Russian role in combating the Islamic State (IS) -- calling for a de facto Russian-American anti-IS alliance.

Initially, the gambit appeared to be working. Bolstered by Russian air power and the deployment of Russian Special Forces Units, whose role is still not entirely clear, the Assad government steadily gained the upper hand against the Syrian rebels. After a protracted siege, Syrian forces succeeded in taking control of rebel-held east Aleppo, and have continued to make steady advances against Syrian rebels in Idib province, the group's last major remaining bastion. They have also made some headway against Islamic State forces, and have slowly advanced toward the IS capital of Raqqa. Although significant opposition to the Assad government remains, it is now unlikely that there is any one group with sufficient strength to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. For all practical purposes Assad has won the Syrian Civil War.

Equally important, the Russian presence in Syria served to preclude a larger Turkish role in the Syrian Civil War. After failing to get American backing for broader Turkish military intervention, Ankara limited its actions to taking control of a strategic region between the western bank of the Euphrates and the Kurdish dominated canton (province) of Afrin to the west. In doing so, Turkey prevented Syrian Kurds from linking Afrin with the other Kurdish dominated cantons of Jazira and Kobani. These lie between the eastern bank of the Euphrates and Iraqi Kurdistan. Syrian Kurds have already declared this region the semi-independent state of Rojava. 

In one respect, however, the Russian intervention has come up short for the Kremlin. Syria has failed to produce the chips that Moscow hoped it could trade with the US and the EU for concessions over Ukraine and the withdrawal of the economic sanctions imposed on Russia. Instead, the reaction of the world community in the wake of the Assad government's most recent ill-fated use of sarin gas against the Syrian village of Khan Shaykhun, now threatens to make a difficult economic situation even worse. Simply put, by being held responsible by the US and its NATO allies for Assad's use of poison gas against his own citizens, Russia's Syrian gambit, rather than helping the Kremlin dig itself out of the hole it made for itself in invading Ukraine; now threatens to make that hole even deeper.

In the wake of the Syrian chemical attack and the US retaliatory military strike, the White House was quick to hold Moscow as equally guilty as Damascus for the atrocity, claiming that the Kremlin had advance notice of the impending chemical attack. While Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continued to insist that the attack was "a 100% fabrication," US Secretary of Defense James Mattis confirmed, on April 11, that his personal review of the intelligence on the attack left no doubt in his mind of the Syrian government's culpability.

UK Prime Minister Teresa May quickly endorsed the US retaliatory attack on the Syrian military air base at al Shayrat, declaring that, "there was no future for Assad in a stable Syria." While extending an olive branch to Moscow to disassociate itself from the Assad government, she also voiced support for the imposition of additional economic sanctions if Moscow continued to back Damascus. UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson abruptly cancelled a planned visit to Moscow.

At the G7 meeting of Foreign Ministers held in Lucca, Italy, on April 10-11, the US and the UK failed to gain support for the immediate imposition of new sanctions against Russia for its support of the Assad regime. Johnson, who led the effort, made it clear that if "Russians are associated with the Syrian military operation, it is in my view wholly appropriate that they should face economic sanctions or sanctions of some other kind." The G7 Ministers, however, did confirm their unanimity on "Assad needing to go," underscoring their opposition to Moscow's continued support of Damascus.

German Prime Minister Angela Merkel described the US attack as "understandable" given the "barbaric" chemical attack, which she described as a "war crime." Merkel, declined to immediately impose new sanctions on Russia, but left the door open for additional sanctions should Russia be shown, after an investigation, to have been complicit in the attack. Even Beijing publicly disassociated itself from the Assad government, and while not openly criticizing Moscow, confirmed that in its view Assad would have to go.

The sharpest criticism came from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who made it clear that the Kremlin will have to choose between its support of rogue regimes and organizations like Syria, Iran and Hezbollah, or seek better relations with the US and the EU. According to Tillerson, "is that a long-term alliance (Syria) that serves Russia's interests? Or would Russia prefer to realign with the United States, with other Western countries and Middle Eastern countries that are seeking to resolve the Syrian crisis?" The inference was unmistakable, there will be no sanctions relief for Russia as long as Moscow continues to back the Syrian regime and its allies. Tillerson also criticized Moscow for failing to deliver on its guarantee that the Assad government had turned over all its chemical weapons, as well as its assurances that Damascus would not use such weapons.

The West's new resolve on Syria is a bit surprising. The chemical attack on the village of Khan Shaykhun was a barbaric act, but it is only the latest barbaric act in a civil war that has been characterized by a long succession of barbarism and war crimes. This was hardly the first time that Assad had used chemical weapons. When the Obama administration sought to mobilize European support for a broader military response to the Assad government, however, they got only lukewarm support. What's changed?

First, the Trump Administration has acted unilaterally and has made clear that it will continue to act unilaterally. It has not asked for either financial or direct military support from its European allies. Opposing the Assad regime is politically popular if it does not require a stepped up military response from those governments. Moreover, by supporting the US action, those governments are hoping that they will gain some leverage on other issues they have with Washington.

For Teresa May, the biggest challenge facing her government is to negotiate a successful Brexit of the UK from the European Union. Negotiating a trade deal with the US, which singlehandedly represents a quarter of the world's economy, is a key priority and will help mitigate some of the potential consequences of losing access to the EU's common market. To complete such a trade deal within the two-year window mandated by Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty will require the Trump Administration to fast track any agreement. While there is no explicit quid pro quo between London's support for US actions against the Assad government and its desire for a trade treaty with the US, the May government will not be shy to call in whatever favors it has earned of late in Washington when it comes to getting a UK-US trade deal done.

Likewise, Washington's European allies, increasingly under pressure to boost their defense spending to two percent of GNP, also have a vested interest in supporting US actions in Syria. While such support will not eliminate Washington's desire to see higher European defense spending, it will give America's NATO allies some chips to cash in, in the inevitable renegotiation that is coming, over how the two percent target number is to be determined. More significantly, Moscow's efforts to sow dissension within the EU over the continuation of economic sanctions has been effectively stymied. New sanctions may not be forthcoming, regardless of the outcome of the investigation into the chemical attack, but neither is a repeal of the existing sanctions in the cards.

If past actions are any guide, faced with a choice of either abandoning his Syrian ally and seeking better relations with the West or continuing on his present, likely stalemated, course; Vladimir Putin will do neither. Instead he will seek to change the rules of engagement, looking for other areas where he can gain leverage over the US and its allies, which he can use to force a change in the sanctions regime and US and EU policy toward Ukraine.

Recent US charges that Russia is aiding the Taliban in Afghanistan -- even though this runs counter to the interests of their long-time client the Northern Alliance -- resulted in stepped up Russian support -- and in the case of Marine Le Pen's National Front direct financial support -- for Europe's anti-EU nationalist political parties and a step up in Russian diplomatic activity among former Soviet clients, like the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. All of this suggest that the Kremlin is sticking to its strategy and simply upping the stakes. That strategy is reminiscent of a losing gambler who keeps doubling his bet convinced that eventually the cards will break his way and he will regain all his losses. Vegas odds makers will tell you that strategy usually results in going broke. Then again there is always the old KGB standby, if Bashar al-Assad was to have an unfortunate accident, the Kremlin could craft a face saving solution. 

If Vladimir Putin were still a colonel in the KGB, his superiors would probably take a dim view of his latest operation. Rather than providing leverage to enable the Kremlin to resolve its differences with the US and its allies over the invasion of Ukraine, his Syrian initiative may well end up making Russia's economic situation even worse. The net result, in those days, might have been a demotion, or at the very least a transfer to the KGB station in Kamchatka. As it is, Vladimir Putin no longer reports to anyone, but that doesn't mean that a demotion might not be in his future. 

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