Putin's Syria Strategy

Russian Airstrikes and What Comes Next

A Sukhoi Su-30SM jet fighter flies above a kite during an airshow outside Moscow, August 29, 2015. Maxim Shemetov / Reuters

As some had predicted, in late September Russia intervened in Syria. In Moscow’s eyes, the move reconfirmed Russia’s status as an indispensable power and broke down its international isolation by diverting attention from Ukraine, winning some applause in the EU and possibly creating conditions for sanctions relief. Most important, the United States softened its position on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose resignation is no longer considered a precondition for settlement.

To examine what Moscow is ultimately after—its theory of victory—and how it will get there, one has to make some assumptions. First, disputes about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s prudence and the Kremlin’s aptitude for sound national security policy are unsettled. But empirical evidence suggests that Putin, though not necessarily a chess grandmaster, does have his own systematic method for managing crises and strategic interactions. He is guided by his understanding of Russia’s past and his deeply held visions of its future. Not infallible, he nonetheless examines his options, changes course in response to events, and demonstrates a judoka’s aptitude for improvisation and exploitation of his adversaries’ mistakes.

Second, the desired endgame for Moscow is presumably a stabilized Syria through which Russia can preserve its regional presence. Initially, Moscow will try to secure and strengthen its stronghold on Syria’s coast—in the Latakia and Tartus facilities, where it has long maintained a presence. Russia could expand its beachhead by increasing airfield capacity and equipping its docks for bigger battle and transport ships. Russia would use its optimized launching pad to supply Assad’s and its own forces in their battle to stabilize and protect the borders of “little Syria,” the regime’s current strongholds. Meanwhile, Moscow may start to inch toward a political settlement. The Kremlin will likely first push for the restoration of Syria’s prewar borders. If that seems infeasible or too risky, though, it may be satisfied with the little Syria borders. Although Moscow’s preference will be for Assad

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