Though Russian jets streak over Syria, dispersing ordnance against the remnants of the U.S. trained anti-Assad resistance forces, Putin’s main strategic target lies outside the MENA region. In immediate terms, Putin’s play in Syria is about the survival of the Assad regime and the positioning of Russia to play a key role in the final settlement in Syria. But the score for his “Syrian Concerto” is intended to be played on several pianos at once. Although his audiences in MENA and Washington are important, Putin’s primary audience and his largest concert hall are in Europe. Through his actions, Putin has linked Syria to Ukraine and raised exponentially the stakes for the Europeans. Putin’s message is that the European Union should make a deal on Ukraine, for if it seeks to continue isolating Russia and opposes the lifting of sanctions, he can further destabilize the Middle East.
By striking into Syria, Putin has made his position clear that there can be no resolution in the Middle East without Russia, and that to achieve this goal Moscow is prepared to brush aside Washington’s objections. He has directly inserted Russian power into an issue that is now at the heart of the increasingly troubled EU project: the flood of migrants entering Europe from the Middle East driven by the war. Even if Putin ultimately fails to save Assad in Syria, he has already accomplished a major gain: Although no European official will say so publicly, Putin has established a linkage between Syria and Ukraine, having just secured at the Normandy Group meeting the de facto endorsement by Germany and France of his goal to change Ukraine’s constitution by federalizing the country’s East. He is now positioned to extract further concessions from the EU when the sanctions against Russia come up for review.
The most significant deliverable from Putin’s latest visits to New York and Paris is that he has broken out of international isolation, or rather, that the purported isolation of Russia—notwithstanding the public ostracism of Putin—was largely a lark. This is about much more than Putin’s speech-making in the UN, his brief handshake with President Obama, or his interview with Charlie Rose. Having been repeatedly condemned, shunned, and ridiculed by the West, with economic sanctions cutting deeply into his bottom line, Putin has turned the tables on his critics, defiant in his tone and action, and confident that his adversaries in the West will break before the Russian people turn against him. Instead of caving in to the West on Ukraine, as many have been predicting, Putin has linked Syria and the larger MENA crisis to a settlement on Ukraine along largely Russian terms. By abruptly challenging the United States in Syria and leaving the Obama administration to scramble for a response, Putin has again seized the initiative and rendered further talk of Russia’s isolation largely a moot point. The most enduring impact of Putin’s Syria gamble will be felt in Europe. The Europeans are being sent a message that if a solution to the migrant flows into Europe is to be found, Russia must have a say in the matter (read: if you are in Kiev, think long and hard about what the “final settlement” of the Donbas crisis will look like).
Russia is positioning itself again as a global player, either as an enabler or as an obstructionist power. Sounding like a 21st-century version of Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, who used to proudly declare that nothing in the world could be decided without the Soviet Union taking a position on the issue, Putin has confronted the United States directly, sending a message to the states in the Middle East and to Europe that Russia’s priorities as a great power must be factored into any decision. To appreciate the effectiveness of his approach, one need only look at the attention he has been getting, from Israel through Saudi Arabia to Iran, Berlin, and Paris. His message to the United States is that Russia is back as a great power, and that it will continue to assert itself at the United Nation or elsewhere, unafraid to move militarily against U.S. proxy forces in Syria.
The danger of Russia’s campaign in Syria, notwithstanding the attendant risk that it will spiral out of control, lies with his timing. Putin has been betting on America’s intervention fatigue, and thus far his calculation seems to add up. Even more importantly, he has gauged the deepening crisis in Europe, which had already been shocked by his Ukraine venture, shaken to the core by the Eurozone crisis, and now is being rocked by waves of migration from the Middle East that it cannot control or even manage effectively.
Last but not least, Putin has again dealt a blow to U.S. credibility. If there ever was a classic “in your face” foreign policy, Putin’s actions against American interests in MENA are just that, with the goal of further undermining U.S. influence with its allies. For Moscow, Syria and Ukraine are parts of the same strategic design: to target the Transatlantic security link, to undermine U.S. influence in Europe, and ultimately to dismantle the NATO alliance. Regardless of whether the Russians will ultimately succeed in saving Assad, Putin’s decisive move into Syria against rebels trained and supported by the U.S. has delivered a powerful message to the Europeans: America lacks the resolve to act, even in areas as important to its global position as the Middle East. The Europeans, especially the allies along the northeastern flank of NATO, will not miss this lesson.
There is a larger point to be made as the Obama Administration considers its options in Syria. The United States’ risk aversion has become an important variable in Putin’s strategy. The lesson the White House has drawn from the past decade of American intervention has been to minimize the risk of negative outcomes emblematic of Iraq and Afghanistan—that is, events that would fit the famous line by Colin Powell on Iraq: “You break it, you own it.” But Putin’s gamble in Syria is predicated on the assumption that, while there is indeed always the risk that an outcome may turn out badly, there is also another side to Powell’s dictum, namely that the payoff of a forward-leaning if admittedly risky policy can be substantial.
It is time we appreciate the larger stakes of the war in Syria for the future of U.S. influence in the Middle East, our relations with Europe and the cohesion of the NATO alliance. It is time we make sure Putin’s piano is not the only one to sound a tune in Syria.