The Great Game–latest round.

“What do Russians want?”—Sigmund Freud.

One theory holds that the pursuit of foreign policy gains is driven by domestic concerns.[1] Russian actions in Syria and Ukraine are intended to distract Russians from their current economic hard times by reviving Russian parity with the United States. However, even though Russia remains burdened by economic sanctions imposed over the Ukraine and constantly assailed by Western leaders, Putin has called for new parliamentary elections in April 2016. That doesn’t look like a worried man. More likely, Putin’s chief concerns are international rather than domestic.

Vladimir Putin habitually gloms together a range of international events as evidence of the malign effects of American interventionism: Iraq (2003), Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), Libya (2013). Georgia and Ukraine may seem like a bad case of emotional sunburn, but it’s hard to argue with the examples of Iraq and Libya. As Putin made clear to New York Times reporter Peter Baker some years ago, he wants the Americans to stop it.[2] Apparently, Syria is the place where he intends to make his point.

Russia is trying to show that it is a better ally and worse foe than is the United States. In essence, the Russians want Assad to stay in place until they agree that he should go and that he be replaced by a regime friendly to Russia. At the moment, the Russians are willing to fight and the Americans are not, so Putin is likely to get his way.

The Russian intervention in Syria has been modest: 50 aircraft; 6,000 troops to service and protect the planes; and about $3 million a day. With that backing, however, Assad’s forces have expanded their territory at the expense of their foes. The anti-Assad forces approved of by the West often fight cheek-by-jowl with the anti-Assad forces disapproved of by the West (the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front). The Russians don’t seem much inclined to fine distinctions and the most-recent cease-fire agreement allows for attacks on both ISIS and the Nusra Front. The current fear in Washington seems to be that the Russians will continue their attacks on a broad swathe of anti-Assad forces after the cease-fire nominally goes into effect. If past performance is any guide, the US will not do anything more than protest as its nominal clients are killed.

However, now Assad’s troops are close to encircling the rebel city of Aleppo. If they can cut the main supply routes into the city before the cease-fire begins, then the cease-fire will allow a siege to run forward undisturbed. Any attempt by Assad’s opponents to break out of or break in to Aleppo would constitute a violation of the cease fire. Seen in that light, Putin’s insistence that he will honor the cease-fire may be “sincere.” The fall of Aleppo might put the last nail in the coffin of the non-ISIS part of the insurgency.

That still would leave ISIS. Would the Russians back a Syrian effort to reconquer the eastern part of the country from the Caliphate? If they did, what sorts of questions might that raise for other countries? The United States would have to decide if it would co-operate with such an attack. After having complained that the Russians have not been attacking ISIS, it might be embarrassing to refuse to join an attack on ISIS. If the Syrians did attack eastward, would they navigate around the Syrian territories held by Kurds? Leaving the Kurds in place would pose a problem for Turkey’s President Erdogan, who has been after Assad’s head for years. “Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision!”[3]

[1] Neil MacFarquhar, “Russia Wins Policy Points. Now What?” NYT, 24 February 2016.

[2] See: “Obama versus Putin.” https://waroftheworldblog.com/2014/09/28/obama-versus-putin/

[3] Joel, 3: 14.

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