Has Putin Gained the Upper Hand in Syria?
Policy + Politics

Has Putin Gained the Upper Hand in Syria?

© RIA Novosti / Reuters

Further cementing his new role as a major player in Middle East politics, Vladimir Putin has schedule a one-on-one meeting with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani on Monday, in Tehran, at which the two will discuss the fight against ISIS as well as military and economic cooperation.

Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov told reporters that in the meeting, the third between the two leaders this year, “The parties will discuss all topical issues of bilateral cooperation - trade and investment cooperation, nuclear energy, oil and gas production, military and technical cooperation.” Ushakov said topics will include the settlement of the Syrian conflict, the implementation of the Iranian nuclear program, the fight against terrorism, and confronting the Islamic State terrorist group.

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The meeting will take place as Western countries are struggling to reassess their relationship with Putin following the ISIS terror attacks in Paris last week. Putin has placed significant air and naval assets in and around Syria in an effort to prop up Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who is threatened by ISIS and by a rebellion among his own citizens.

Putin and other Kremlin officials had originally characterized the Russian mission in Syria as combating ISIS, but the great majority of the strikes by Russian planes and guided missiles were actually aimed at Assad’s internal opponents. However, after a Russian airliner was bombed over Egypt and ISIS claimed responsibility, the Kremlin eventually announced that it would increase its force levels in Syria with the aim of punishing ISIS.

The announced meeting with Rouhani highlights the fact that Iran is also closely engaged in Syria. Rouhani has sent Iranian Revolutionary Guard units to help Assad and the Iran-backed Hezbollah has reportedly sent units from Lebanon as well.

The Paris attacks prompted promises of strong military retaliation by France, and because the heart of ISIS is in Syria, where Russia is already operating, it necessarily requires cooperation between the two countries. Russia immediately pledged to support France, among other things instructing its guided missile carrier Moskva to rendezvous with the French aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle when it arrives off the Syrian coast next week and to treat it as an “ally.”

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All this occurs while France, the United States and European allies continue to impose a punishing sanctions regime on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and its continued support of armed separatist groups in the country’s Donbas region.

Russian permanent ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Alexander Grushko said at a conference in Berlin this week that his country “is in very heavy demand as a partner in dealing with global issues,” and said that the hope in Russia is that the differences between Russia and the West over Ukraine can finally be set aside.

Not so fast, said Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, who spoke after Grushko at the same event.

“We cannot be distracted by what Russia is saying or doing in Syria and forget that 25,000 Russian soldiers still sit in the sovereign Ukrainian territory,” Hodges said. “Nobody should forget that what they are doing there should not distract you from what they are still doing in Ukraine and the threatening posture and activities they have demonstrated against our allies in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.”

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However, there is increasing evidence that France, for one, is interested in having Russia as a partner rather than an adversary, including calls from senior French politicians to reassess the relationship between Paris and Moscow.

For its part, the White House has downplayed the prospect of working with Russia in Syria, pointing out that as a matter of policy, the U.S. doesn’t believe that the conflict there can be resolved while Assad maintains a hold on power, and Russia is dedicated to helping him do just that.

Even among President Obama’s usual supporters, though, there is some softening toward Russia.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has called for including Russia in a new NATO-like organization that would fight global terror. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has also called for cooperation with Russia.

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"We need to be able to work with Russia and Iran, if they will work with us, in the Syria area,” she said in an interview with MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell on Monday. “We need to be able to get a political solution to Assad so that all of everyone's attention can be directed to ISIL.”

It’s far from clear what Putin would try to extract as a price for moving toward Wester powers’ view of an eventual resolution in Syria — throwing his ally Assad under the bus wouldn’t inspire much confidence in the Kremlin’s shrinking stable of minor allies and client states, so would come at a high cost.

If that cost were accepting the status quo in Ukraine and easing sanctions on Russia, the resistance in the White House and among influential Republicans on Capitol Hill would be intense. Whether the reaction would be the same throughout Europe is a different question.