It is hard to know what to make of U.S. President Barack Obama’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Of course, the two leaders do not like each other, and there was obviously no meeting of the minds on how to handle the Syria crisis. Soon after the parley, Moscow launched strikes on Syria. Russia will continue its military buildup there, and the European refugee crisis will continue to deepen. But will Syria become a new focal point for U.S.-Russian tensions, or is there a chance for reluctant cooperation?

Putin and Obama have been at loggerheads over Ukraine ever since early 2014, when, in reaction to the fall of the pro-Moscow Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, the Kremlin annexed Crimea and unleashed a campaign to destabilize southeastern Ukraine. Soon thereafter, the United States imposed economic sanctions on Russia. Earlier this summer, it looked as if a thaw might be in the works when Obama praised Russia’s role in the Iran nuclear negotiations and Moscow eased off its anti-American rhetoric. But relations again chilled as Moscow significantly built up its military footprint in Syria, which the United States interpreted as preparation for a military intervention to defend Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

Russian officials say that Putin’s rhetoric about Russia’s presence in Syria should be taken at face value. He claims that thousands of jihadists from the Russian Caucasus and the former Soviet states of Central Asia are now in Syria to fight with the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS). For Putin, it is better to battle them in Syria than to do so much closer to home.

A poster showing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (L), Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) and Lebanese Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah on a micro bus in Syria, May 26, 2014.
A poster showing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (L), Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) and Lebanese Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah on a micro bus in Syria, May 26, 2014.
Khaled al-Hariri / Reuters
Thus, in his UN speech, Putin called for a new “grand coalition” against ISIS and highlighted the Russian military commitment to challenging ISIS in its Syrian stronghold. But what lies behind his rhetoric, and what explains the timing, given that the militant group made its big gains in Syria and Iraq nearly a year and a half ago?

For Putin, Russia’s current situation is defined by both economic weakness and geopolitical opportunity, and he wants to use the latter to mitigate the former. Economic weakness is driven by the sharp fall in energy prices and reinforced by the sanctions imposed by both the United States and Europe in response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. The geopolitical opportunity lies in the failure of U.S. policy to stop ISIS’ momentum or to resolve the battle in Syria and the consequent refugee crisis in Europe. Putin is opportunistically seeking to advance Russian influence in the Middle East while at the same time portraying the Kremlin to the world, and especially to Europe, as a key part of the solution to the problems. 

The Obama administration is correct to be wary of Russian support for Assad, but Russia is unlikely to have in mind direct military backing for the embattled president. For months, Russia engaged in a diplomatic dance with Saudi Arabia to find common ground for addressing the Syrian crisis. Emboldened by their military campaign in Yemen, the Saudis were not enthusiastic about a new diplomatic effort that included the Syrian president. Russia’s strategy is not to trigger a broader proxy conflict but to accelerate what Putin probably now sees as an inevitable negotiated endgame; he sent a decisive signal to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar that any military efforts to change the Syrian regime will be futile. Russia’s Syria policy might not be popular in many Arab capitals, but its willingness to defend allies is met with respect.

More broadly, Putin is responding, in his own way, to Obama’s hope that Russia will continue its constructive role in the Middle East by offering to serve as the necessary link between what have been two competing coalitions fighting ISIS in the Levant: the U.S.-led coalition and the Iranian-led coalition, neither of which can succeed without the other.

Rebel fighters demonstrate their skills as part of a graduation ceremony at a camp near Damascus, Syria, July 11, 2015. The newly graduated rebel fighters, who went through military training, will join the the Free Syrian Army's Al Rahman legion.
Rebel fighters demonstrate their skills as part of a graduation ceremony at a camp near Damascus, Syria, July 11, 2015.
Bassam Khabieh / Reuters
Putin’s Middle East gambit is also about taking advantage of the refugee crisis to further draw attention away from Ukraine and to create the conditions under which Europe can lift or weaken its sanctions on Russia. Russia knows that the migrant crisis has been a challenge to the EU’s political coherence. In part, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom supported sanctions against Russia in 2014 to show solidarity with the eastern European states—the governments that are now refusing to share the burden of accommodating refugees. In the meantime, Putin has not had a difficult time convincing some of the southern European states, especially Italy, that Russia should be treated more as a partner than a pariah. In the last month, Moscow even showed flexibility in German-led negotiations that resulted in a new cease-fire between Russia and Ukraine, and he has ensured that the cease-fire has largely held.

So, Putin came to New York believing that he held a pretty strong hand (in fact, it is the only reason he came at all). After all, Obama’s goals in Syria—defeating ISIS, finding a negotiated political compromise, and ousting Assad—seem less attainable than ever. Given Washington’s reluctance to get further embroiled in Middle Eastern conflicts, Putin was hoping that his actions would force the United States to focus on his priorities. 

But Obama’s distrust of Putin runs deep, and he was not about to accept the new Russian narrative at face value. Yesterday’s meeting was but the first inning of what promises to be a long game. For possible constructive next steps, Putin’s meeting last week in Moscow with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might be instructive. Bibi returned home with agreements on procedures for deconflicting the two countries’ forces in Syria and keeping Russian weaponry out of Hezbollah’s hands. The Russia-Israel agreements might be a model for where U.S.-Russian interactions go next.

Beyond that, Obama faces a dilemma. The U.S.-led anti-ISIS campaign is going nowhere fast. It is worth exploring whether Moscow’s military involvement in Syria might be leveraged to weaken the extremist group. Obama should be open to working with Moscow on new diplomatic proposals to end the Syrian war. But he would be right to make clear that the United States will do so only if Moscow restricts its use of force to the anti-ISIS campaign. At this point, both sides probably need to avoid dealing with the issue of Assad directly if a constructive diplomatic path is to be found.

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  • DAVID F. GORDON is Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He was previously the U.S. State Department's Director of Policy Planning.
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