Russia’s Game Plan in Syria Is Simple

Stick it to the Americans.

SEMIKARAKORSK, RUSSIA - SEPTEMBER 24: Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with farmers in a corn field September 24, 2015 in Semikarakorsk, Russia. Putin made a one-day trip to the Rostov region. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
SEMIKARAKORSK, RUSSIA - SEPTEMBER 24: Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with farmers in a corn field September 24, 2015 in Semikarakorsk, Russia. Putin made a one-day trip to the Rostov region. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)

In Monday’s press briefing, coming after a weekend in which Moscow increased its military footprint in Syria seemingly exponentially, White House press secretary Josh Earnest declared that the administration had come no closer to deciphering Moscow’s motives for its stepped-up presence in the area.

The truth is Russia’s motives are not that hard to divine.

The most proximate reason is the fact that Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled, murderous leader, has been losing territory at a rapid pace. In July, he made a rare announcement admitting losses and blaming them on a shortage of manpower. “We are not collapsing,” he said, which is not something regimes that are not collapsing often have to proclaim publicly. Allowing Assad to continue on the same losing trajectory is anathema to Moscow. “Bashar al-Assad is losing; he’s losing one town after another,” said Georgy Mirsky, a vintage Russian Arabist who teaches Middle Eastern conflicts at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. “If you don’t help Assad, he’ll lose and then the whole world will say Putin lost.” Putin placed his bet on Assad four years ago, Mirsky said, and he hasn’t wavered since. Now he has become a prisoner to that bet and to a certain honor-bound logic. “If you make a bet on a horse and the horse comes in last, then how does it look?” Mirsky explained. “It looks like you don’t understand anything. You will be seen as a loser.”

Russia has always supported Assad, but that support now seems to be inadequate to stanch the bleeding. To avoid looking like a loser who bet on the wrong horse — which, incidentally, Putin has done a lot of in the Middle East — Putin simply has to put more on the scale to maintain the same equilibrium.

Why prop up Assad? Some commentators have pointed to what they see as a burgeoning Russian influence in the region, but many in Moscow see it differently. This talk is “slightly exaggerated,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, who is no Kremlin critic. “Russia doesn’t have many opportunities in the region, and Syria is a unique case.” Russia, he said, is simply stepping into the void left behind by American waffling and a lack of clarity in its Syria policy. “The growth of Russian influence is directly proportional to the decline of American influence in the region,” Lukyanov explained. “The United States lost its mission so maybe the other regional powers see Russia as bad and unpleasant, but they also see that it acts clearly and consistently.” And yet, Lukyanov said, Russia’s expanded horizon for action in the region “is all thanks to Syria. It all starts and ends in Syria.”

Other, more hard-line voices in Moscow are gloating over this role reversal, however exaggerated or mild. During the Arab Spring, Moscow lost influence in the Middle East, while America again seemed to be recovering the stature it lost after the invasion of Iraq. Now America can’t seem to find its way in the region, while Russia is acting boldly, uninhibited by the agony of indecision gripping the White House. Now America needs Russia, not the other way around. Secretary of State John Kerry has spoken of the need to cooperate with Russia in Syria; and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu talked “deconfliction” in the Syrian skies. Even Obama, who has long refused to meet with Putin because of Russian action in Ukraine, has acceded to meeting the Russian president to discuss Syria. America needs Russia, which means Russia has gotten away with its Ukraine heist — and the Russians are loving it.

“The U.S. needs cooperation on Syria more than Russia,” tweeted Aleksey Pushkov, the throaty chairman of the Russian parliament’s committee for foreign affairs. “Without it, the U.S. will find itself playing second fiddle and will lose the battle for world opinion.”

And that, too, is part of the goal: restoring Russia as a leader of world opinion after the reputational damage it suffered in Ukraine, muscling in as a power broker that needs to be consulted in important crises far from its borders and sphere of influence. Putin has long railed against the evils of a “unipolar world,” that is, a world in which only America calls the shots, without the countervailing forces of Russian policy. Now, the reticence of the Obama administration to do more in Syria gives Putin a much wider seat at the table and a much louder voice in determining what a political solution in what’s left of Syria looks like.

But even members of the reliably shrill pro-Kremlin chorus seem to admit that nobody but Russia likes this configuration — and that Russia, like Pushkov said, doesn’t really need this at all. Sergei Markov, head of the Institute of Political Studies and a member of Russia’s Civic Chamber — who told me that the United States “waged a hybrid war against Russia in Ukraine” and that “Assad is the most civilized politician in the region” — said that Moscow simply had to take up this mantle of responsibility. “Russia’s role is growing not because Russia wants a greater role,” Markov explained. “Putin doesn’t want a greater role. Russia just has to fill the vacuum that is left by the departure of the United States. The policy of United States has an irrational quality, and therefore it has catastrophic consequences for the region. The elites of the region have to distance themselves from the United States and work with Russia.” Moscow, he went on, would rather be dealing with Ukraine. “Russia has to be distracted by Syria because there is a vacuum forming there that, if Russia doesn’t fill it, becomes dangerous for Russia” because of the presence of the Islamic State, Markov explained. “It’s not proactive. It’s done out of necessity.”

Why does Russia absolutely need to fill a vacuum? Because it still sees itself as a great power locked in an endless struggle with the other great power, the United States. And if the United States, feeling that its interests are undermined by getting sucked into the Syrian civil war, leaves a space unoccupied on the game board, Russia feels it has to take over that space, simply because its interests can be roughly articulated as “more is better.” And now, for once, Russian foreign policy and American foreign policy seem to complement each other.

Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

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