Russia’s recent entry into the Syrian civil war has transformed the battle lines of that bloody four-year conflict, bolstering President Bashar Assad and opening an unpredictable new phase in US-Russian relations.
Until a few weeks ago, the United States and its allies controlled the skies over Syria, focusing their military attention on Islamic State militants while insisting that no durable solution could be found until Assad stepped down.
But now Russia has begun launching its own bombing raids, which have strengthened the position of Assad and his regional allies, Iran and Hezbollah.
Meanwhile, United States officials said Friday that the US would send as many as 50 Special Operations soldiers inside Syria to help coordinate efforts against the Islamic State, adding a new dimension to the volatile situation.
Syria’s future may depend on whether the United States and Russia, with their very different objectives, can find enough common ground to build a workable compromise.
Why is Russia involved in Syria?
Russia has a lot of reasons to care about what’s happening in Syria.
To begin with, Russia and Syria are longtime allies, going back to the Cold War-era partnership between the Soviet Union and Assad’s father, former president Hafez Assad.
But it’s not just history. Russia has strategic interests as well. Among other things:
■ Russia maintains a military base in Syria, its only position on the Mediterranean.
■ Several of the Syrian rebel groups include skilled fighters from Chechnya, some of whom cut their teeth fighting against Russia in the 2000s and who might be emboldened by a victory in Syria.
■ If Bashar Assad is forced out by the international community, that could set a dangerous precedent for Russia itself. Like Syria, modern Russia is a kind of petro-state, with weak democratic checks on power and an economy that is currently in deep recession as a result of low oil prices. Were Putin confronted by a restive populace, he would hardly want the United States and Europe to compel his departure.
Perhaps most generally, Russia’s intervention in Syria fits with Putin’s broader efforts to reassert Russia’s authority on the world stage.
Invading Crimea, and stoking the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, is the most defiant example. But Russia also played a central, constructive role in cementing the US-Iran nuclear deal. And if you throw in high-profile events like the Sochi Olympics and the embrace of Edward Snowden, you can see the full scope of Russia’s desire to be a recognized player in global events.
What actions are the Russians taking?
Throughout the Syrian civil war, Russia has stood behind the legitimacy of Assad. Only in the last month, though, has it become involved militarily.
Since late September, Russia has been leading a bombing campaign against rebel groups in Syria, and providing air support for a coordinated government offensive — helped by Hezbollah and Iranian fighters — that is bringing lost terrain back under Assad’s control and granting new legitimacy to a president who had been marginalized by the international community.
Is this a proxy war between Russia and the US?
The United States and Russia aren’t exactly partners in Syria, but they’re not adversaries either.
In some ways, the Cold War rivals are actually pursuing similar strategies. Both are keeping their troops at a distance, preferring to work through bombing raids and air power. Both are reaching out to build coalitions, the United States being partnered with traditional allies like Canada, France, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia while Russia is reaching out to Iraq, Iran, and Jordan.
But the United States and Russia have different objectives, tied to very different conceptions of who counts as a friend, and who an enemy.
Assad himself is a good example. The Americans want him out, on the grounds that he has lost all legitimacy and become the foremost obstacle to peace. For four years, President Obama and European leaders have been demanding that he step down, with no success.
The Russians think him indispensable, the only player who can credibly negotiate the terms of a transition to a new power structure for Syria. And to burnish his standing, they actually hosted him in Moscow last week.
Another clear divide between US and Russian priorities involves ISIS, the terrorist group first spawned by the Syrian civil war and now attempting to establish its own state in Sunni areas of Iraq.
Confronting ISIS is perhaps the highest priority of the American bombing campaign in Syria, but Russia sees things differently. In working to help Assad, they’re aiming more broadly at the complex array of rebel groups that are fighting the regime — and sometimes one another — including hard-liners in the Islamic Front and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Al-Nusra. These kinds of radical groups are hardly US allies, but they haven’t been a focus of US military activity.
Does the US want Russia to succeed?
The Obama administration was initially dismissive of Putin’s intervention, suggesting that Syria was likely to backfire.
That makes sense. If US officials thought there was an effective military path to peace, they would probably have embraced it themselves. Instead, they’ve chosen the more modest approach of aiding and equipping carefully vetted moderate rebel groups. (A failed effort to actively train moderate fighers was abandoned last month.)
US bombing raids in the region are chiefly designed to degrade and destroy ISIS forces, not to tip the balance of power between Assad and his main rebel rivals.
But one thing Russia’s intervention has done is force the United States and Russia to talk — not just about how to keep their military forces safely separated, but also about finding a path forward.
Obama and Putin met directly in early September, but their relationship has long been prickly — with Obama claiming that Putin is stuck in the Cold War and Putin writing condescending op-eds about Obama’s policies — and in the end the discussion seems to have been fairly contentious.
Since that time, though, there has been some progress. Last Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, met in Vienna in a substantive effort to try to restart the long-stalled peace process. They were joined by representatives from Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and may soon welcome delegates from Iran.
What’s going to happen?
Their involvement does seem to be having an effect. By helping Assad’s forces reclaim lost territory, the Russians have given rebel groups new reason to doubt their ability to win on the battlefield — which could well push them toward the negotiating table.
It also brings new risks. Imagine if an accident or miscommunication led US and Russian aircraft into direct conflict. Or, looking ahead, what if Russia decides to greatly expand its role in the fractured region, partnering more aggressively with Iran to shift the balance of power in places like Libya, Yemen, or Iraq?
Obama has taken a sort of case-by-case approach to Putin, partnering with him in some instances, like the Iran nuclear negotiations, yet opposing him outright at other times, as in Ukriane. You can imagine he’d consider any future Russian activity in the same way, balancing the costs and benefits of every US response.
But the president we’re set to elect next year may approach things differently. And it’s hard to know whether a stiffer approach would tame Putin’s ambitious — or increase the risk of open conflict.
In Syria, the question of the moment is whether the United States can accept a peace deal that leaves Assad some power, either as a figurehead, a transitional leader, or even a candidate in postwar elections? Doing so would require a radical shift in US policy, open to critique as a betrayal of those who lost their lives fighting for Assad’s ouster. But it could prove the only way to achieve a lasting peace.