How Russia’s gambit in Syria changes the game

Michael Kofman writes: The Syrian refugee crisis has emerged as Europe’s paramount security problem this year and shows no signs of abating. Russia is looking to capitalize on this. More than likely, Vladimir Putin will seek to tie the issue of Ukraine-related sanctions to the common causes of fighting terrorism and stemming the tide of refugees into Europe. When the renewal of sanctions is discussed in December, Moscow will demonstrate that in contrast to “feckless” U.S. policies, it could have answers to the Syrian civil war. At the very least, Russia will pitch that its own plan to fight the Islamic State can’t be worse than whatever the Americans have been doing. This will serve as more of a diplomatic wedge than a realistic proposition to settle the Syrian conflict.

Coincidentally, the countries in Central and Southern Europe that appear least interested in accepting refugee and migrant flows, are also the ones who were unenthused about sanctioning Russia. There is a growing list of nations that Germany convinced to show European solidarity on the sanctions policy who wish to see it ended. With the war in Ukraine quieter, and Russia moving to address the conflict in Syria, it may provide good ammunition in December for those wishing to cancel sanctions. Either way, with the Russian economy suffering from low oil prices, it will be looking to incentivize the suspension of sanctions.

Assad should not be gleeful, as Moscow has come to save the Syrian Army but at the price of assuming direct control. He is dealing with a purely realist power, and if the plan changes, Russian tanks could find their way to his palace. Hafizullah Amin’s fate when the Soviet Union took over Afghanistan is a good historical lesson to ‘be careful what you wish for.’ Russia will try to reframe the Syrian Army as part of an anti-Islamic State coalition, seeking to take advantage of the empty space created by the U.S. policy in this conflict. If that should fail, Russia and Iran may agree to dispense with Assad as the price of maintaining their ability to influence Syria’s fate.

The United States faces a conundrum. Once Russia completes its deployment, it can completely undermine the U.S. effort in Syria, from no-fly zones to opposition proxies. The two sides are no closer to agreement on a framework for political settlement, but Russia and the United States are both backing the minority powers in this conflict now, while jihadists represent the dominant powers in Syria. That is a low bar for common cause, but it should give Washington pause. Meanwhile neighboring countries and Europeans are paying an increasingly high price in terms of refugees. Letting this bloody civil war continue is becoming increasingly intolerable for the West. Somewhere in the future, under the next administration, could be a large U.S. Army deployment to the Middle East as a result of how this war is being handled today. [Continue reading…]

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