When Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama addressed the UN General Assembly within hours of each other on September 27, their eerily prescient words foreshadowed two months of geopolitical intrigue.
“Dangerous currents risk pulling us back into a darker, more disordered world,” warned Obama, who openly condemned Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for Bashar Al-Assad in Syria.
Putin, who spoke second, offered a different version of events. “We think it’s an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces who are valiantly fighting terrorism face to face,” he said, referring to the Islamic State.
“We cannot allow these criminals who have already felt the smell of blood to return back home and continue their evil doings,” the Russian president added. “No one wants this to happen, does he?”
The two months since have seen both leaders’ warnings borne out.
Shortly after Putin’s UN address, Russia intervened in Syria on Assad’s behalf, escalating an already bloody conflict. Recent reports from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Syrian Network for Human Rights have put the civilian death toll from Russia’s bombing campaign at over 400.
Just as deadly was the two-week period from late October to early November that saw Islamic State-directed attacks in Paris, Beirut and Egypt. The bombing of a Russian passenger plane in Egypt, which killed two hundred and twenty-four, was carried out by the Islamic State as retaliation for the Kremlin actions in Syria; the attack in Paris, when assailants killed 130 in coordinated suicide bombings and shootings throughout the city, was Europe’s worst terrorist attack since 2004. Since the Paris attacks, American and French warplanes have stepped up airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq.
The world is indeed a darker and more disordered place than it was two months ago, and no one has benefitted from that disorder more than Putin and Assad.
When the UN met in September, Russia’s support for Assad merited little sympathy from the rest of the world — by May of 2014, Russia and China had vetoed four widely-supported anti-Assad Security Council resolutions regarding Syria. But in the wake of Paris, Islamic State terrorism has eclipsed Assad’s brutality as a global concern, Washington is struggling to limit Russian influence in the Middle East, and international players seem more willing to risk strengthening Assad by weakening the Islamic State — the exact attitude Putin tried to promote at the UN two months ago.
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UP until now, part of the reason Western powers have avoided involvement in Syria is that it represents a lose-lose proposition: Fight ISIS and you help Assad; fight Assad and you help ISIS. But no such dilemma exists for the Russians, who have long counted Syria as a loyal client. Russia sells weapons to Syria, and has a vital naval base at Tartus, Syria — the Kremlin’s only outpost on the Mediterranean. So it’s no wonder that Russia stood by Assad as the conflict escalated and decided to step in after Assad lost ground to ISIS and other rebel groups over the summer.
Russia’s influence in the region has grown along with its military presence. Shortly after deploying warplanes to a base near Latakia, on the Syrian coast, Russia surprised the U.S. by announcing an intelligence-sharing agreement with the Iraqi, Iranian and Syrian governments. And Iraq’s welcoming stance towards Russia — it has allowed Russian military planes to pass through its airspace on their way to Syria, and in late October voted to allow Russian airstrikes in its territory, over Washington’s objections — is due in part to Vladimir Putin’s popularity among Iraqi Shiites. Happy that a great power appears to be taking on the Islamic State, which is Sunni, many have welcomed Russia’s show of strength.
Moscow’s newfound influence in the region will help it push for a political solution that promotes its interests. That increased diplomatic leverage became apparent soon after the Russian bombing campaign began: by the end of October, Iran, another staunch Assad ally, had secured a place in the negotiations over a political settlement to the conflict after having been excluded by the U.S. since negotiations began.
“Clearly worried about the military support that Russia and Iran are providing to prop up President Bashar al-Assad,” wrote Thomas Erdbrink in the New York Times, “the United States has concluded that the only hope for easing Mr. Assad from power is to find a political solution with his two sponsors.”
Russia’s attempt to tip the balance of power met initial resistance from American policymakers, who criticized it as a dangerous escalation. And at the same time that Iran won a seat at the negotiating table, the U.S. announced that it would deploy around 50 Special Forces soldiers to assist Syrian rebels in non-combat roles. Those 50 soldiers, the first established American presence in Syria since the country’s civil war began, represent a step Obama has been loath to take — but not, as some commentators suggested, a change in strategy. Fifty soldiers were never going to turn the tide of a conflict that has taken wel over 100,000 lives. But those soldiers weren’t aimed at the Islamic State — they were a signal and a deterrent pointed at Moscow.
Embedding American troops with the rebels Russia was bombing — contrary to their claims, the Russians weren’t going after the Islamic State — would raise the risks for all involved, deterring further Russian escalation. Putin doesn’t want to kill an American soldier, but with American troops working alongside Syrian rebels, Russian military action in Syria would risk doing just that. Tellingly, the Obama administration said it wouldn’t share the location of its troop with Russia — a move that only makes sense in the context of purposeful, risk-manipulating brinksmanship. The troop deployment is a practical policy and a symbolic one, delicately escalating the conflict and demonstrating Washington’s willingness to continue doing so.
The purpose of Obama’s troop deployment wasn’t lost on Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who the day after Obama’s announcement warned about the risk of a “proxy war”. And a similar goal likely drove Washington to step up its own bombing campaign against ISIS’s oil fields two weeks later; the Pentagon had apparently been planning the new air campaign for weeks, a timeline that would date its origins to shortly after Russia’s intervention.
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WITH the troop deployment and intensified bombing, Obama wanted to keep Moscow from dominating Syria and, by extension, any eventual political settlement.
And then Paris happened.
Planned and executed in part by Islamic State fighters, the November 13th attacks changed Western powers’ calculus on Syria. The day before gunmen stormed the Bataclan concert hall, Obama had called ISIS “contained,” but suddenly the threat of Islamic State terrorism felt more immediate than it ever had, and Western leaders had to respond. French president François Hollande declared France “at war” with the terrorist group, and Hillary Clinton said during a presidential debate that “ISIS cannot be contained, it must be defeated.” At the G20 meetings in Turkey, dominated by talk of Paris, the media pressed Obama on his strategy. And in the U.S. and elsewhere, commentators wondered whether the U.S. and its allies would change their approach to fighting ISIS.
France has shifted its policy most abruptly. Before November 13, French military action in the conflict had focused mainly on Iraq; like the U.S., France worried that attacking the Islamic State in Syria could indirectly strengthen Assad. But in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks, the French Air Force launched a series of intense strikes against Raqqa, Syria, the caliphate’s de facto capital. The French air campaign has since continued, with the country’s flagship Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier — the only nuclear carrier outside the U.S. Navy — recently deploying to the eastern Mediterranean.
But the French military isn’t the only one stepping up its efforts against ISIS. Since the Metrojet bombing, the Russian Air Force has shifted its focus to ISIS as well, and now France and Russia are effectively working in tandem to bomb ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria. Although François Holland continues to call for Assad to step down, France’s new focus on ISIS suggests that he sees Assad as the lesser of two evils.
The Russians have always backed Assad, and now it seems that France is willing to tolerate him. Perhaps that alignment of interests explains why, as Hollande seeks to assemble a coalition to attack the Islamic State, he has planned to meet with Putin before meeting with Obama. Obama, in turn, has leaned on Hollande to stay the course against Russia and prevent French-Russian cooperation in Syria from jeopardizing NATO’s unified front on Crimea. But according to a French diplomat, the French president plans to push Obama to join France and Russia’s anti-ISIS efforts — this, three weeks after Obama announced the deployment of Special Forces troops in a bid to curb Russia’s interference in the conflict.
In September, Russia attempted to legitimize its support for Assad by invoking the specter of Islamic State terrorism. In the months since, that specter has become terrifyingly real, and the Kremlin is reaping the rewards. Obama has appeared tentative and defensive, while France, one of Washington’s closest allies, is co-operating with Russia to strike Islamic State targets in Syria — likely strengthening Assad in the process.
When American-made Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian Su-24 near the Syrian-Turkish border on November 24, Putin was quick to blame the Turks for a “stab in the back” that would “abet” terrorism. Moscow has taken up the mantle of anti-terrorism, allowing Putin to frame a clear, if dishonest, narrative: We want the terrorists dead; if you aren’t on our side, you’re on theirs. Washington, in turn, now faces a dilemma: the actions of Turkey, a NATO member that’s allowing American planes to take off from its soil for strikes in Syria, risk widening the fissure between Moscow and Washington. But with British prime minister David Cameron recently pledging to support French military action in Syria, and France looking to cooperate with Russia, Obama risks ceding control of the situation to Putin if he antagonizes the Kremlin further.
Whatever happens, one thing is clear: Since Paris, Putin has gained the upper hand. The world has become a darker and more disordered place, but darkness and disorder suit him well.