A vegetable vendor sit by his cart near damaged buildings in a market in the northwestern city of Ariha, in Idlib province, Syria, on Monday. (Ammar Abdullah/Reuters)

In recent weeks, Russian President Vladimir Putin has surprised the West repeatedly: first by deploying warplanes and tanks to Syria, then by calling for an international coalition against the Islamic State, and finally by announcing an intelligence-sharing deal with Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Russian officials cast the announcements as part of a new campaign against Islamic State insurgents, who control parts of Iraq and Syria. After a year in which Russia was isolated internationally over its infiltration of Ukraine, it seemed that Putin was returning to the world stage with bold plans.

But Russia has limited capacity to influence the chaotic situation in the Middle East, officials and analysts say. The Russian public does not support sending large numbers of troops to Syria, according to opinion polls, and Russian authorities are wary of accidentally being drawn into a conflict with U.S. and other Western forces in the region.

Putin may not have so much a grand vision for the Middle East as a desire to roll the dice, seizing opportunities to use diplomacy or force as they occur, analysts say.

“To quote Napoleon, engage and then we’ll see,” said Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies and a member of the Defense Ministry’s Public Council. “I think there is some improvisation going on here.”

Russia’s president blamed foreign intervention in North Africa and the Middle East for creating a terrorist-fueled “anarchy.” (Reuters)

Putin’s latest moves reflect real concerns about his country’s strategic interests. Russia faces a low-level Islamist insurgency in its North Caucasus region, and more than 2,500 Russian citizens are fighting alongside Islamic State militants, up from 200 in 2013, according to security officials.

When they return home from Syria and Iraq, the fighters could pose a security threat in regions such as Dagestan, where some insurgents have already pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.

Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remains one of Moscow’s last allies in the Middle East. The Syrian government’s rapid loss of territory this year, particular near the port of Latakia, alarmed Kremlin advisers.

“The Islamic State is the mortal enemy of Russia, and it is so much better to engage them outside of Russia,” Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said in a telephone interview.

But the desire to intervene in the region, Trenin said, is complicated by facts on the ground, including the presence of Western forces and their allies. The United States leads a coalition that has launched thousands of airstrikes in Syria, and Washington is arming some anti-Assad rebels.

Moscow has sought to avert potential collisions with the West through a diplomatic campaign culminating Monday at the U.N. General Assembly, where Putin called for a new coalition against the Islamic State.

Putin’s unexpected maneuvers did secure him one diplomatic prize: a meeting with President Obama, who had been shunning the Russian leader because of Moscow’s military activities in Ukraine.


But the two presidents remain sharply divided over the future of the Assad regime, with the U.S. government insisting that the Syrian president leave office as part of a resolution of the war. According to Russian officials, the United States also rebuffed Moscow’s invitation to join an ­intelligence-sharing center it plans to set up in Baghdad with Iraq, Syria and Iran to coordinate the fight against the Islamic State.

On Tuesday, the Russian Defense Ministry said that while efforts to build a coalition were important, it would continue to send “modern armaments and military hardware” to the Assad army. Russia has for years shipped weapons to the Assad government. Its recently announced buildup goes beyond such deliveries, with Putin’s government sending several dozen warplanes, battle tanks, artillery and hundreds of soldiers.

Emile Hokayem, a Middle East expert at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, said Russia would face a quandary if it escalated its intervention: whether to engage the Islamic State or engage other rebel groups that pose an even more vital threat to the Assad government.

Russian backing, especially air support, could give Assad an edge in the fighting, he added, but it would probably not prove decisive.

“I think that we exaggerate Russia’s influence on the Assad regime,” he said, noting that the Syrian government has closer partners, such as Iran, which has provided ground forces, intelligence assistance and military supplies to its ally.

Domestically, Russian state television has ramped up its coverage of the Middle East, seemingly to prepare the public for further engagement.

Russian war correspondents, who earlier filed triumphant reports on the exploits of pro-Russian separatists in southeast Ukraine, suddenly appeared in Damascus this month, portraying an Assad army in urgent need of support.

Political analysts, particularly those focused on Russian politics, said the government has used the Syrian crisis to divert attention from Ukraine, where fighting has diminished but progress toward a political settlement has stalled.

Even some close to the government may welcome a different focus for Russia’s foreign policy.

“Elites, decision-makers, a lot of them are very tired of this war in Ukraine,” said a former Russian diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

So far, though, there appears to be little of the appetite for military engagement that existed when Russia annexed Crimea and backed pro-Russian separatists in southeast Ukraine last year.

On Tuesday, the Levada Center, an independent polling firm based in Moscow, released a survey that said only 14 percent of Russians strongly or somewhat supported direct military intervention in Syria, while 69 percent opposed or strongly opposed military intervention.

By comparison, in June 2014, 40 percent of Russians said they strongly or somewhat supported direct military intervention in Ukraine.

Denis Volkov, an analyst at the Levada Center, acknowledged that public opinion in Russia could swing quickly toward support for intervention, as it did in Ukraine, because of the immense influence of state-run television channels. But he pointed at another figure: Only 21 percent of Russians said the country should accept Syrian refugees. That stands in contrast to widespread support last year for helping refugees from Ukraine.

“There is no deep sympathy for the people of Syria,” he said. “In Ukraine, it was about helping a Russian-speaking people. Here, the main narrative is that Russia can be an international player and fix the problem.”

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