Russia’s military moves in Syria are fundamentally changing the face of the country’s civil war, putting President Bashar al-Assad back on his feet, and may complicate the Obama administration’s plans to expand its air operations against the Islamic State.
So far, the administration has not budged in its twofold strategy — direct airstrikes against the Islamic State and significant aid for those fighting against it, and a push for negotiations to end what has been the largely separate Syrian civil war.
Senior administration officials acknowledge that Russia has already made some tactical gains in the civil war, even as they insist President Vladimir Putin will ultimately pay for what they describe as a strategic blunder that will undercut his already tenuous reputation in the world and encourage the spread of the militants.
If Putin’s goal was “to get attention,” one senior official said, “then it was brilliant. . . . If it was to end the fighting in Syria, that’s where we think it’s a strategic error.” At the same time, the official said, “Russia is now going to be viewed as being anti-Sunni . . . attracting the ire of extremist groups,” including the Islamic State.
But others within the administration, and many outside experts, are increasingly worried that if President Obama does not take decisive action — such as quickly moving to claim the airspace over northwestern Syria and the Turkish border, where Russian jets are already operating — it is the United States that will suffer significant damage to both its reputation and its foreign policy and counterterrorism goals.
Putin has said he does not intend to launch military ground operations in Syria, and senior administration officials said Wednesday that they see no evidence of any ground combat units there. But the Russian deployments include sophisticated electronics, some of them designed to jam aviation electronics. Other than Russia and the Syrian government, only the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State is flying planes in Syria.
The current internal administration debate is largely the same one that has kept the administration out of significant intervention in Syria’s civil war for the past four years. On one side, Russia’s involvement has strengthened the winning argument that the United States should avoid direct involvement in yet another Middle East conflict and should continue directing its resources toward countering forces such as the Islamic State that pose a direct threat to U.S. national security.
On the other side, the argument is that it makes no strategic sense for the United States to concede Russian dominance of the situation: If Russia succeeds in keeping Assad in power, the problems in the West caused by both the Syrian war and militant expansion will only get worse.
Putin’s strategy is that “you accept our terms” on Assad “and then we step back and let you solve your own problems” in Syria, said Igor Sutyagin, a Russian-studies expert at London’s Royal United Services Institute. “If you don’t, we create a complete mess . . . increasing the influx of refugees into Europe, and your life gets more difficult.”
The administration has said that the civil war can be solved only through negotiations and that there can be no solution that leaves Assad in power. Until the middle of last month, the opposition — a wide assortment of groups ranging from CIA-trained rebels to non-Islamic State extremists — appeared to be turning the tide against the Syrian military, taking territory in Idlib and Aleppo provinces in the northwest and on the southern front near the Jordanian border.
“The only viable future for a unified Syria is one that unites the moderate elements and what remains of the regime after Assad is pushed out,” a U.S. intelligence official said Wednesday. But “Russia’s actions have directly threatened that prospect.”
Recent efforts by the United Nations and others to organize new negotiations, beginning with localized cease-fires, have already begun to fall apart under Russian bombardment that is likely to change Assad’s calculus. Some see the Kremlin’s goal as maintaining Assad’s control over a rump Syrian state, in western population centers away from areas of Islamic State dominion, an objective that would also ensure Russia’s continued foothold in the Middle East.
“If [the possibility of negotiations] existed until one or two weeks ago, we definitely find ourselves today . . . in a completely different place,” said one international official who has long been involved in the effort. “We’ve been completely blown out of the water.”
A cease-fire reached with Iran and Hezbollah to allow aid and evacuation of civilians from Zabadani, west of Damascus near the Lebanese border, has now unraveled “because of Russian action,” the international official said. Although coordinates had been shared with Russia and plans were in place for U.N. officials to enter the area Saturday, it has been bombed three times, said the official, who like other U.S. and international officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Russia has said that its purpose is to strike the Islamic State. But the vast majority of its targets have been in areas of opposition control in western Syria and are seen as paving the way for Assad’s forces to take territory lost to the rebels or never contested. The strategy is much the same as the one the administration has followed against the Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq, where air power is designed to weaken the militants and allow local forces to move in and hold ground.
Assad’s military, also backed by Russian and Iranian supplies and intelligence, and new influxes of Iranian and Hezbollah fighters, appear to stand a good chance of regaining the initiative against the Syrian rebels, many of whom say they fear they are being abandoned by the United States.
“The growing involvement of Russia in the Syrian conflict is likely to lead to even greater civilian displacement and further complicates delivery of lifesaving humanitarian assistance,” Mercy Corps said in a statement Wednesday.
“People are increasingly moving closer to the border with Turkey so they can cross if things get too bad,” said Michael Bowers, vice president of the aid organization.
An alternative nightmare scenario has already begun to play out, as CIA-armed rebels have begun fighting against Syrian troops moving into Russian-bombed areas, part of the U.S.-Russia “proxy war” that Obama has vowed to avoid.
As rebel forces reposition themselves farther south in Idlib and Hama provinces, the Islamic State is likely to gain a stronger foothold in the northwest region along the Turkish border to the north of Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city.
That region has been under discussion between the United States and Turkey as a possible protected area where rebels can regroup and refugees can gather. Last week, Obama approved “shaping operations,” including some airstrikes, to prepare for a proposed major increase in anti-Islamic State airstrikes by U.S. and coalition planes flying from Turkish bases.
But Russian operations in the area may complicate those plans and push the administration toward a decision to confront Moscow — one that it has so far not wanted to make. Turkey, and NATO, have already warned Russia after at least two incursions of Turkish airspace.
“They are sending planes and messages to Turkey and NATO,” said Sutyagin, once a military policy expert for the Russian government. The message, he said, is that “this area, where you want to establish safe zones . . . is not safe because we are approaching there, entering your airspace, and there might be clashes.”
Greg Miller and Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed to this report.