If Moscow played chess…well, it just moved a pawn in Syria. Only a very insecure person gets excited when the adversary moves a pawn, although a good strategist always positions pawns in advance to support a queen thrust. A beginner, on the other hand, loves to fire the queen straight into enemy territory, where she usually ends up getting slapped around.
Now that the dramatic U.S. air campaign against the many little military vehicles that the Islamic State is driving all over the Mideast desert has started to look a bit long in the tooth, provoking cynics to accuse Washington of only pretending to fight the Sunni extremists, how indeed could Moscow fail to take the opportunity to lay down its marker? Putin should be admired for his strategic thinking: he has sent a very clear message by shipping troop living quarters to Syria that the Syrian mess has reached the point that Moscow can no longer ignore it. Indeed. Someone has to do something.
But much more than that, Moscow now intends to be part of the solution. Perhaps Moscow intends to fight; why not: Washington is. Or perhaps Moscow simply wants to be taken seriously. In any case, Moscow has simultaneously strengthened its negotiating and its military positions, at very low cost. Putin’s move should be evaluated in comparison with A) the massive 2003 U.S. commitment against Iraq with its tragic result a decade later and B) the humiliating Obama concession to Erdogan of allowing Erdogan to attack the Kurds, despite their being the only effective U.S. ally on the ground in Syria.
Putin’s move should also be evaluated in comparison with the extremely aggressive and risky Saudi air war in Yemen, a campaign increasingly holding hostage the Saudi regime, whose new king may not survive failure.
Putin’s move is consistent with a Russian desire to break up Syria and with a Russian desire to win in Syria, but there is still no evidence that Russia plans to go for a victory. The U.S.-Iran nuclear accord suggested that Washington might be looking for a Syrian compromise solution. Moscow has now responded ambiguously. Iran is playing its cards close to its vest. It is Washington’s move.