Yves Herman / Reuters Russia's President Vladimir Putin at a news conference, June 18, 2013.

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Putin's Involvement in Syria—And How Obama Can Leverage It

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.

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?

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