A Tiptoeing Military Intervention in Syria: Putin’s Dubious Plans

Russia is offering to help in the fight against the terrorist militia the Islamic State, but behind the offer are other motives. Putin’s Syria policy is part of the problem, not a solution.

The war on the terrorist group the Islamic State is going badly. One year after airstrikes on extremist outposts in Syria began, the Americans and their allies can hardly demonstrate any success. The United States’ strategy is suffering from the same fundamental problem as [it was] a year ago: As long as President Obama does not want to put ground troops in, he is dependent on local allies — but such allies are lacking, or they do not have the necessary fighting strength.

In this situation, the Russian head of state is offering himself as a deus ex machina to the rescue. He is proposing a broad coalition against the Islamic State group, which not only consists of the American-led alliance, but also Russia, Iran and Assad’s regime in Damascus. As if to show that he is serious, he has moved fighter jets, helicopters, tanks, artillery — as well as an unknown number of military advisers, marines and logistical personnel – to Syria, constructing Russian bases in lightning time. It is already clear that this is the greatest military action on Moscow’s part outside of the ex-Soviet territory for 25 years. Russian security groups are emphasizing tirelessly that this is all about noble goals, and that fighting the Islamic State group and sparing Europe from refugee flows from Syria are the questions at hand.

All this sounds too good to be true. As with the German “summer fairy tale” about the apparent boundless solidarity [local citizens have] with those seeking exile, the public should obviously now believe Putin’s “autumn fairy tale” about the selfless mission to rescue Syria. However, the master of the Kremlin has already achieved initial success with this. In its Near East policy, Moscow is once again a factor: Not only did Israel and Turkey consult with Putin this week over Syria; the Americans for their part have resuscitated military contacts with Moscow that had been frozen for over a year, and next week — after two years of waiting — a summit meeting with Obama may come true, just as Putin would like.

Talks with Russia may make sense. However, they should not take place with any illusions: Putin is not a trustworthy partner. For him, it’s not about the problem of Syrian refugees, of which Russia has taken in only around 2,000 in the last four years, nor is it primarily about the Islamic State group, though Russia does have an interest in containing the jihadi movement due to its Islamic roots. With his Syria adventure, Putin is pursuing primarily other goals. Firstly, he wants to rescue his old client Assad, as the leader ensures Moscow’s influence and prestige in the Near East, makes equipment sales possible and serves as a geopolitical instrument that radiates Russian power outward from new bases into the Eastern Mediterranean.

Secondly, Putin has always enjoyed putting his foot down to show that he is [someone] to be reckoned with. The fact that Washington was not able to block Syrian airspace and hinder Russian supplies surely must have created as much satisfaction in Moscow as the fact that the Americans must now deal with Moscow as a partner in talks.

Thirdly, the Kremlin is counting on dividends in other locations. Soon, the EU will once again have to choose whether to extend the sanctions against Russia stemming from the Ukraine crisis. If Russia is now considered an important partner in talks regarding Syria, it is hard to imagine how it can continue to be isolated because of the issue of Ukraine. However, toughness and consequences with respect to the continued support for the East Ukrainian separatists are indispensable.

Putin cannot be a credible ally in Syria for another, completely different reason. With his support for Assad for years, he is especially guilty for the fact that the dictator has been able to stay in power and continue the war on his own people. Do we all now want to seriously look on as Assad receives new airplanes and helicopters, with which he demonstrably bombards residential areas and markets? The West should not let itself be roped into such a policy that only pushes the Syrian people ever more into the arms of the Islamist extremists.

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