The Duck of Minerva

Putin Falls Into Obama’s Syria Trap. (Or Is It The Other Way Around?)

1 October 2015

Russia has begun conducting air strikes in Syria, much to consternation of many. But there seems to be some in the Obama Administration who can barely contain their glee at the thought of Putin and Russia getting bogged down in the Syria quagmire:

“If he wants to jump into that mess, good luck,” one official said, noting that Russia had become bogged down in Afghanistan a generation ago in a fight against Islamic radicals.

Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken told reporters that the Russians may be “making a terrible strategic mistake” by deepening their military involvement in Syria. He also warned of the “risk of running into a quagmire.”

Indeed, this narrative makes sense in the context of what I believe to be Obama’s strategy for Syria: stay the hell out. As I see it, Obama does not believe there is any chance that US military force can produce positive outcomes in the civil war and so he is assiduously avoiding taking any actions that could create the possibility of deepened US involvement. So, he has limited US activity to the bare minimum that politics and public opinion will allow. Meanwhile, he can sit back and watch as several US enemies–Iran, Hezbollah, ISIS, the Assad regime–slaughter each other. And now that Russia has decided to jump into the shark tank, all the better. In this reading, Putin’s desire for Middle East influence, for a new war to divert domestic attention from the collapsing Russian economy and stalemate in Ukraine, or for burnishing Russia’s international reputation has tempted him to fall into the trap that Obama has been smart enough to avoid.

But this narrative might be backwards.

So far, Obama has avoided any serious criticism of his inaction in Syria as he has taken just enough action to create a veneer of caring (e.g. air strikes against ISIS forces, working with Russia to remove Syria’s chemical weapon arsenal, “training” Syrian rebel “groups,” increasing the number of Syrian refugees the US will admit, and so on).  What if Putin is trying to force Obama to admit the shallowness of his concern over Syria?

So far, the Russian air strikes seem to be targeting groups actively opposed to ISIS and in areas not controlled or dominated by Islamic State troops. Additionally, Russia seems to be striking at groups supported by the US. Meanwhile, Russia is demanding that US forces cease operations in the area of Russian military activity, and despite efforts to deconflict the air space, reports are that Russia is “bypassing” the process.

There is no question that this situation has the potential for accidental conflict between US and Russian forces. Whether it be from too many air platforms in a limited air space or from collateral damage from air strikes, two different armed forces carrying out missions against different target packages is a dangerous situation. But what if this is what Putin wants? Could this be some kind of brinksmanship being played by Russia to force the US to admit the shallowness of its commitment to Syria and stand down its already limited involvement?

If my assessment of Obama’s “strategy” in Syria is right, it’s safe to assume that Putin knows it as well. Perhaps Putin is escalating the chances of accidental conflict because he believes that Obama will prefer to back down and further limit the US role in Syria to avoid any potential accidents. Forcing the US to step down its role in, or even get out of, Syria would be a huge coup for Putin, who has routinely challenged the role of the US in the Middle East. If Putin is indeed trying to burnish Russia’s reputation internationally, defending the sovereignty of the Assad regime and taking more serious actions against ISIS (assuming Russia eventually does decide to target ISIS) might buy Russia some goodwill. And as Russia seeks to reclaim some of its former Soviet glory, standing by its one remaining Middle East ally is an important signal to few remaining friends Russia still has. Humiliating the United States by forcing Obama to admit that he doesn’t care about the Syrian civil war would be the icing on that cake.

At this point, this is just speculation on my point. But it’s hard to see what Russia expects to get out of sinking itself into the Syrian quicksand. Maybe I’m right, maybe not. Thoughts?