Syria May Be Putin's Afghanistan
The United States and other Western powers have voiced concern over Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to send combat fighters, sophisticated weaponry, and eventually troops to Syria. That concern is legitimate. Russia's authorities haven't hidden their readiness to come to the rescue of a brutal ally - Bashar Assad - who has not hesitated to drop barrel bombs and use chemical weapons against his country's civilian population.
Yet no one should be more concerned with Putin's move than Putin himself. For Russia's escalating involvement in the Syrian battlefield may quickly turn out to be a geopolitical millstone for the Kremlin.
For sure, Putin's involvement in Syria is likely to be less strenuous and resource-consuming than the Soviet entanglement in Afghanistan in the 1980s. All the same, the problems that Russia's expanding presence in Syria will likely create for Putin's regime are reminiscent of those that brought about the Soviet rout in Afghanistan.
For starters, Russia will be utilizing resources on two fronts, Ukraine and Syria, at a time when the oil-market slump, Western sanctions, and the inefficiencies inherent to Russian crony capitalism are putting a severe strain on that country's economic and financial capabilities and, consequently, on the viability of Putin's strongarm moves.
Putin's Syria gambit is all the more risky as the anti-Assad governments of the Middle East, in particular those of the Gulf States, will not spare the efforts and the financial means to offset Russia's increased military assistance to the Syrian government. Some of them will not mind doubling down on their support to their proxies operating in Syria, placing these in a stronger position to fight not only Assad's crumbling army, but also the newly arrived Russian troops.
It can be expected that the anti-Assad terrorist groups already engaged in the Syrian theater of operation (the Islamic State group and al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusrah in particular) will, in turn, have to slow the pace of the atrocities they commit against Syria's citizens - if only to recapture the sympathy of the population - so as to concentrate on a more pressing, life-or-death endeavor, namely to face and combat well-equipped Russian troops posted in Syria.
The behavior of Iran-funded Hezbollah sheds light on this dynamic. Hezbollah has had to reduce and put off its attacks against its main target, Israel, in order to defend the battered Syrian regime. ISIS and Jabhat al Nusrah will probably reprioritize in full to cope with Russia's military might.
For their part, the Gulf States as well as Turkey will be more dependent on U.S. logistical assistance. They will thus show more willingness than in the past to take into account and meet the conditions set by Washington in exchange for such assistance.
The United States stands to gain from all these developments. Washington, therefore, has no interest in offering Putin an easy way out, for instance by accepting a trade-off involving Russia's agreement to the departure of Bashar Assad in return for the installation of a regime in Syria with new faces but still controlled in part or in full by Russia and Iran.
No less important, now that the Syrian regime is in tatters, the the region's Sunni, anti-Assad governments will hardly be satisfied with a merely cosmetic change in Syria's top echelons of power. They may aim at a more meaningful victory; namely, a substantial reduction of Iran's control over Syria - a condition that Russia doesn't seem ready or able to agree to.
Furthermore, not even on humanitarian grounds is peace at any price a desirable objective. As cautioned by political scientist and military strategist Edward Luttwak, a victory by any of the major contenders - be it the Syrian regime with new faces or an insurgency infiltrated and dominated by militants - would trigger a slaughter against the losing communities and factions even more horrific than those seen thus far.
No solution seems more viable and durable than the status quo or a variant thereof. A national unity government, encompassing figures from both the present regime and moderate factions of the insurgency, would be too disparate, weak, and exposed to terrorist groups to last or to effectively rule.
Like it or not, the Syrian standoff is there to stay. The rivalries are too deeply entrenched, and the combat means at the disposal of belligerent factions are too exorbitant, for peace and stability to be an attainable objective in the months or years ahead.
Under such circumstances, Washington and its allies have no better option than to work within the Syrian conflict - to avoid making empty promises or setting vacuous red lines, and to avoid vain attempts to fix it.
Seen from this perspective, it's better to allow, and even to push, Vladimir Putin to become entangled in the Syrian quagmire - Ronald Reagan allowed the Soviet Union to do just that in Afghanistan.