Does Putin have a strategic plan for the Mideast, or did he simply want to remind the world that the Sov…(sorry)…Russia still exists?
Putin showed his tactical skill and consolidated his military hold on a base in a non-state. Wow! There’s nothing like an isolated military base in a region in flames surrounded by ungoverned territory. One need only recall how fast the city-sized American bases in Iraq blew away in the desert sandstorms…which begs the question, “Does Putin have a strategic plan for the Mideast?”
Putin currently has three things going for him regarding the Mideast:
no personal record of interfering, getting bogged down, and slinking away;
a door opened wide by the West for marching in to take care of the Islamic State;
an Iran, now acceptable to the West (within limits), looking for assistance.
If Putin wants to turn his little escapade in Syria into a real strategy for establishing a Russian presence in the Mideast as a major player, he will never get a better chance than this.
Scenario 1. Turkey in Flames
It gets better from the perspective of a Kremlin looking to reassert itself, since Turkey is going up in flames, alienating both its friends and its own population. At the moment, Russian media appear to have the most accurate reporting on Ankara’s policy toward the Kurds and towards the Islamic State, and Moscow is making its case right now before the U.N. Obama looks hypocritical, as he dithers, trying to play both sides of the street, leaving the U.S. at the moment with no credible, defensible policy either toward its Turkish NATO partner or toward its new military ally, the Syrian Kurds.
This context could tempt a risk-taking Russian leader to push too hard and get into a real fight with menacing but preoccupied and self-defeating Turkey. Indeed, the proximity of Russian and Turkish forces on the Turkish border with Syria or Rojava or Islamic State plus the pattern of Turkish attacks on Syrian Kurds who have already established a degree of military coordination with Moscow make a serious Russian-Turkish clash almost predictable…even without the threatened Turkish invasion. This may have been central to the Kremlin’s decision to semi-withdraw: it makes Putin appear to be a peacemaker, thus facilitating his “return” to the battlefield in response to whichever of the daily Turkish provocations he chooses to notice. Erdogan, on the other hand, may decide that he needs the distraction of an international incident to cover his war against Turkish Kurdistan (a phrase justified by the overwhelming mass of evidence suggesting that Ankara is demonizing Kurds as a group rather than attempting to reassure Kurdish civilians and distinguish between them and the Kurdish extremists).
A Russian-Turkish confrontation might proceed as follows:
Moscow announces that it is providing anti-aircraft missile defense for Rojava;
Ankara announces plan to attack the Islamic State;
Ankara sends soldiers to protect the refugees on the Turkish border who have fled the Russian bombardment of Aleppo, taking the opportunity to blame Russia for the humanitarian catastrophe;
the stream of Turkish troops continues and moves straight past the refugee camps into the Syrian desert, cutting Rojava in half;
Ankara informs the U.S. that it must cover its “anti-terror” forces with air support and immediately does so.
What does Putin do?
Scenario 2: The Iran Card
Over the last six months, Putin has become the leader of a coalition comprising Iran, Assad’s forces, and Lebanese Hezbollah, with Putin flying the planes and the locals putting the boots on the ground. This coalition now stands exposed in an advanced military position. Two possible outcomes threaten to undermine Putin’s new status as a Mideast decision-maker: a defeat of these forces while Putin stands aside or an Iranian decision that continued support for Assad is too costly without firm military support by Moscow. It seems likely that Tehran will argue forcefully for some demonstration of Moscow’s commitment and that Putin will be persuaded that he must show some backbone.
To consolidate the new Russian coalition in the Mideast:
Installation of the SS-300 defensive missiles (less advanced than the missiles Putin has already put into his Syrian base) in Iran may be the simplest and safest move Putin could make to reassure Tehran. This would serve notice that Moscow has friends and will protect them.
A much more impressive step would be to play some military role in coordination with Iraqi and Iranian forces to support the long-awaited Iraqi campaign to retake Mosul. Washington would have a very hard time finding a legitimate reason for publicly opposing such a move, and it would effectively invite Iraq to join Moscow’s coalition. Given the difficulty Baghdad has had persuading Turkish military “visitors” to return to their own country, Baghdad might calculate that offering Putin landing rights for his splendid air force would enhance both Baghdad’s prestige and its chances of staying in control. Moscow could also mollify any Kurdish nervousness by offering arms or economic assistance.
In reality, it would seem reasonable to anticipate that both these scenarios will begin to play out simultaneously, with innumerable interactions having unpredictable consequences. Not the least of the wrinkles is the lack of any obvious benefit to the region’s Sunni majority. Putin can hardly offer Aleppo to Riyadh or Ankara as the new capital of a Syrian Sunni semi-autonomous area with the Russian military bases in the neighborhood – perhaps a post-Islamic State Raqqa?
At the moment, the vision in Putin’s mind may well be: A) providing air support for the Mosul campaign evolving into Iraqi membership in his Mideast coalition, B) negotiating a new Alawite regime in Damascus without Assad, C) overseeing the establishment of a semi-autonomous Rojava [Plan B: sacrifice the Kurds to mollify Erdogan], and D) launching a joint air war on the Islamic State with Washington. Low-cost, low-risk route to consolidating Moscow’s regional position: what could go wrong?