President Obama is seriously underestimating Putin’s strategy in Syria, according to Reva Bahalia in a recent Stratfor article, “Ruthless and Sober in Syria.”
“Back in October 2015, the president dismissed Russia’s involvement in Syria: ‘Mr. Putin is devoting his own troops, his own military, just to barely hold together by a thread his sole ally. The fact that they had to do this is not an indication of strength; it’s an indication that their strategy did not work.'”
Now Putin’s dense and multi-faceted strategy of “Realpolitik” is coming into clearer focus. Realpolitik is a 19th century word that refers to political tactics that produce concrete results. Putin wants results, whether partial or complete. His approach doesn’t deal with ideals. Realpolitik is pragmatic – only doing what works.
The bombing of Syria’s al Assad’s rebel enemies by Putin and his siege of the Syrian city of Aleppo are meant to pressure three major players in Syria: Berlin (Germany), Ankara (Turkey) and Washington, D.C.
Putin’s goals are to bring about the end of sanctions by Europe, to pressure Turkey into cooperation and to force the United States to make concessions on western encroachment in Ukraine and in Eastern Europe. His goals are based on “sober ruthlessness and resourcefulness,” according to Bahalia.
Russian’s economy is reeling from extremely low oil prices and western sanctions, but the Russian support of Bashar’s siege of Aleppo is sending up to 100,000 more refugees into Europe, dividing North from South, and putting enormous strains on the very structure of the European Union.
German chancellor Angela Merkel is feeling the heat as European borders “snap shut.” These mass migrations are causing the rise of right wing nationalism throughout Europe, including Germany.
Putin hopes to use this pressure to force a veto of European sanctions against Russia by dividing Europe over the issue of immigration. He also wants to pressure the U.S. to ignore Poland’s request for permanent NATO bases – on Russia’s western flank, and to extract concessions in Ukraine.
Putin’s bombing of Syrian rebels allied with the U.S. is also slowing the pace of the war to destroy ISIS, while it is falsely claiming to be bombing the “bad guys” in Syria.
Not only is Putin giving headaches to Merkel and Obama, but he is also giving migraines to Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan, another key player in the region and U.S. ally.
Prime Minister Erdogan wants to set up a “safe zone” in northern Syria to house and protect the refugees, which are flooding into and through his country.
Russia is using its anger over Turkey’s shoot down of a Russian fighter to hamper and restrict Turkey’s actions in the air. Both Turkey and the U.S. are restricting their flights over Syria to avoid an international incident where Russian anti-aircraft missiles could potentially shoot down one of their jets.
By setting up the Syrian safe zone, Turkey also wants to block Kurdish expansion into Syria. Kurdish separatists have wanted their own nation since at least the end of World War I. Kurds are non-Arab Muslims who inhabit parts of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. For decades there have been massacres of Turks and Kurds over this contested region.
Just like it did during the Soviet Era, Russia is playing the Kurdish card to cause trouble for Turkey. Within the last few weeks, Russia allowed the YPG, the Kurdish separatist faction, to set up an office in Moscow.
Turkey has been shelling the Kurds in northern Syria, but the Kurds are the United States’ most effective fighting force against ISIS. Meanwhile, the Turks are pushing President Obama to send in ground troops to lead the fight against ISIS, something Obama is loath to do, having spent his entire administration trying to extract the U.S. from the Middle East.
It seems clear that President Obama has deeply underestimated and misunderstood Putin’s strategy in setting up bases in Syria. Putin is playing a deadly game of chess, something the Russians are very good at.
Obama has several options, which can counter Putin’s moves. Time will tell what those countermoves will be. What is certain in the Syrian conflict is that the stakes are high, and the issues are very complex for Germany, Turkey and the U.S., as well as Russia.
The U.S. is like Uncle Remus’ Brer Rabbit who, in trying to extract his fists from Tar Baby, only finds himself more deeply stuck. Hopefully, President Obama can be as clever as Brer Rabbit in escaping the Syrian trap of Putin’s Brer Bear.