The Russian intervention in Syria has left U.S. policymakers in a quandary. The official line is that Russia’s move doesn’t fundamentally change anything and that, in any case, the Russians will soon find themselves in a quagmire. The United States, to paraphrase former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s famous quip about battling both the Nazis and the British, is prepared to fight ISIS as though the Russians (and the Bashar al-Assad regime) were not there and to counter the Russians as though ISIS weren’t there.
This isn’t as absurd as it might sound; as a practical matter, the Russians have created only two new facts on the ground. First, it is no longer feasible for the United States to establish a safe haven or no-fly zone. But Washington had little intention of doing either, so the tangible significance of this development is meager. Second, the Russians are hitting U.S.-backed rebel groups that had been exerting pressure on the Assad regime near Damascus. This is a genuine problem, and it is the main obstacle to collaborating with Moscow, which was thought to interest U.S. President Barack Obama, at least at the outset of Russia’s intervention.
Three of the protagonists in Syria’s conflict—the United States, Russia, and the Syrian regime—seem to have a converging interest at this point in breaking the logjam created by Russian attacks against U.S.-backed formations in western Syria. American officials probably realize that the Russians have targeted U.S. proxies because of the immediate threat those proxies pose to regime forces, not on account of their connection to the United States. In fact, Russia’s strikes are currently nondenominational, covering the spectrum of rebel groups—from moderates supplied by the United States to ISIS, which Russian forces have started attacking in the vicinity of Aleppo. Moscow’s targeting strategy is intended to alleviate pressure on the regime, allow the regime to reconstitute its forces,
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