September 30, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: Putin’s Syrian Judo
• Russian President Vladimir Putin is fundamentally changing the dynamics of the Syrian civil war, misdirecting the frustrated momentum of the anti-Islamic State coalition into a more Assad-tolerant stance
• A combination of good timing and stumbling geopolitical opposition has put Russia in a position of leverage regarding its influence in Syria and beyond
• By coopting the U.S. position that the Islamic State is the biggest threat, Putin has presented the Assad regime as the best placed force to combat the terrorist group
• EU countries, overwhelmed with current and projected numbers of refugees, are looking for any way to resolve the conflict; some appear supportive or neutral about a slow transition that includes Assad.
In his September 28 speech at the United Nation’s General Assembly in New York, Russian President Vladimir Putin framed the Syrian civil war in black and white terms: terrorists vs. traditional nation-states, including, above all, the Assad regime. The timing of Russia’s recent military buildup and diplomatic push—a parade of Gulf and regional leaders and foreign ministers have made their way to Moscow in the last month—is impeccable. The European Union is now more worried about refugees than Assad, and the U.S. has suspended its high-profile mission to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels. Putin has misdirected the frustrated energy and stalled momentum of his opponents into a position where tolerating Assad for an indefinite length of time is no longer a non-starter.
The recent maneuvering has created a bipolar environment in which Russia feels most comfortable; squaring off with a long-time opponent, the United States, for influence in a vital region. In his speech, Putin made no mention of the undisputed fact that Assad has not only killed tens of thousands more civilians than the Islamic State, but has driven more Syrians from their homes than all the rebel and extremist groups combined. He blamed the chaos and conflict resulting from the Arab Spring revolutions on those who revolted against brutal dictators, and not the dictators themselves—claiming that so-called democratic movements had led to terrorism. Putin insisted that the total collapse of the Assad regime would be a repeat of Libya or Iraq, highlighting disastrous instances of regime change. He argued that Assad's forces are the only realistic hope of combating terrorism in Syria; since terrorism is the West’s main concern, the West must work with Assad in some fashion.
Putin side-stepped the known atrocities of the Assad regime and instead stressed the infamous barbarity and, more importantly, the radiating threat of the Islamic State—helping push the anti-Assad coalition from its stated aim. Even though the rebels have managed to push the Assad forces into tighter defensive positions, Putin has presented himself and his country as an agent of action and result. For countries weary of refugees, foreign aid, and stasis in an endless war, a decisive answer—regardless of merit—will have great appeal.
It remains to be seen how much support Putin can build for his clever reimagining of the United States' ‘Islamic State First’ strategy. Putin wants the fight to be one against terrorism—using his preferred definition of terrorism, to include anyone fighting the Assad regime. Prior to Putin’s speech, President Obama maintained that there could be no ‘return to the status quo’—meaning no future for Syria that includes Assad, though he did not rule out a transition period that might include Assad and his many cronies. The coming weeks and months will show if the fight has truly shifted.
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