So before we jump onto the bandwagon saying Putin intervened in Syria's civil war to upstage the United States and defeat America's policy there, let's consider the intervention from Putin's perspective. I'm sure he acted for multiple reasons, but it could be less in accordance with a grand strategy and more out of desperation.
Syria is Russia's only foreign military base, its only remaining foothold in the Middle East. Assad is in serious trouble, controlling only about 20% of his territory and under increasing military pressure. That's a powerful incentive to intervene. It also gives Russia a seat at any negotiations -- and shifts attention from Ukraine, where the conflict has stabilized and Russia even seems to be scaling back its support to the separatists.
Several commentators in recent days have begun to discuss the problems for Russia of military action in Syria. A New York Times story today notes the long odds of Russian success there.
Yet to restore Mr. Assad to full control of Syria or, for that matter, to stitch Syria back together without putting troops on the ground, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia will have to accomplish what no other outside power has dared attempt.In a piece for Foreign Affairs, David Gordon sees Putin as trying to make the best of a bad situation:
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.Prof. Dan Drezner takes a similarly less alarmist view.
Given Putin’s track record in eastern Ukraine, I’m supremely skeptical of Russia’s ability to impose order in Syria, no matter how much help Iran provides.It's helpful to re-frame what's going on in Syria before we jump to conclusions.
No, the primary foreign policy objection with Putin’s actions in Syria is about optics, because it makes Russia look proactive and the United States look reactive. That’s not a good look for the United States, and it drives foreign policy watchers crazy.
The optics on Syria look disastrous. But frustration at the status quo is not a good enough reason to pursue a riskier, more interventionist policy. There has to be persuasive evidence that this administration could successfully execute such a policy. And I see zero evidence for that.