More on the Disintegration of Syria

From longtime TPM Reader JG ….

With regard to Russia’s military intervention in Syria and what it means for U.S. policy there, a few points that have been on the outskirts of the discussion deserve more attention.

First, the actual deployment is very small. In terms of the airwing, it is roughly the equivalent of what the non-U.S. coalition members have flying over Iraq and Syria, keeping in mind that the U.S. is still flying the majority of sorties now. The Russians are armed with non-precision munitions, meaning the likelihood of civilian casualties is high. The small size and lack of precision mean that it will have limited strategic impact in terms of bombing runs (although it will be able to provide the Assad regime with air support for ground operations).

Moreover, anyone who has been following Russia’s military modernization program closely over the past five years or so knows that the Russian military is unlikely to be able to sustain this kind of deployment in the long run. Despite the scare-mongering headlines about topline budget numbers, big-ticket arms systems remain flawed and unproven in combat operations, personnel is low in quality and morale, and the logistical supply chains overstretched for such a mission.

This means that over time, the mission is unlikely to accomplish much more than propping up Assad and preventing his collapse, which appeared imminent and explains the rapidity of the deployment. Moreover, a very plausible scenario, again over time, is one of equipment failure, such as a plane going down, and collateral damage creating major public relations problems for Putin.

Importantly, unlike in Ukraine, where the Russian military presence was masked and denied even after it had become part of the factual record, thereby allowing Putin to incrementally escalate and de-escalate the conflict in controlled doses, in Syria the Russians are operating openly. This means that, again, over time, reverses and failures will be visible, not only to the world but also to the Russian domestic audience. This is kryptonite to a leader like Putin, but especially now. His entire social contract with the Russian people has been an authoritarian political system in exchange for economic growth and a return to great power status for Russia. Until now he delivered on both counts. But he bit off more than he could chew in Ukraine, underestimating the costs in terms of long-term military commitment and economic sanctions. The hit to the Russian economy, combined with lower oil prices, has already been widely commented on. Putin also overestimated how much “freezing” the conflict would be worth to the Europeans, who surprised him by not removing sanctions in July.

If I’ve repeated the “over time” theme three times, it is to underscore the fact that when it comes to formulating a U.S. response to this new development, time is the biggest advantage we have. The shine will soon wear off of Putin’s move. It looks bold and confident now, but it is actually a bluff and in part a diversionary one at that. And no one is more aware of that than Putin. He was and is counting on a quick, knee-jerk reaction by the U.S. and its coalition partners to rally to his “better Assad than ISIS” line. There is certainly some reason to consider that argument, and it looked for a moment like that would be the case. But the U.S. bargaining position will be much stronger when Putin’s gambit is revealed to be the empty bluff it is. Most importantly, with Putin on the hook in Syria, the main negotiating partner for resolving the crisis will finally have some skin in the game, and therefore a real incentive to bring the civil war to an end.

What that will probably look like is a concerted campaign to “simplify” the battlefield by removing ISIS, al-Nusra and other rebel groups that are simply too far beyond the pale to be part of the postconflict transition, with a Russian agreement to push Assad out when the time comes, in return for guarantees for Moscow’s Syrian interests (naval base and arms sales).

None of this makes for a U.S. policy that is any more coherent or easy to stomach. But it could mean that a managed end to the conflict is envisageable for the first time since it began.

One last word on Putin’s D.C. fan club, which seems to have spent too much time fawning over his shirtless photos to still be capable of examining his moves rationally. A lot of chest-thumpers have been talking up the “Putin strong, Obama weak” line. What they don’t realize is that, in the same way that Netanyahu tried to play U.S. domestic politics on the Iran deal to his advantage, Putin is very likely doing the same thing here. Unlike his D.C. groupies, he knows he’s holding a weak hand. He can block a resolution in Syria, but like the U.S., he can not achieve one alone. There’s the old saw in poker that if you can’t spot the sucker at the table, it’s you. In this case, that would be the D.C. fire-breathers. Putin is trying to play them. His only hope is to bluff Obama into joining forces quickly, and domestic pressure to act might succeed in doing that. Obama’s best play is to be patient long enough for Putin to need us more than we need him.

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