After two days of attacks directed exclusively against insurgents opposed to the Syrian government, there is little question that Russia is determined to re-establish President Bashar al-Assad as Syria’s leader.
“Russia’s goal is to defend Assad; whoever is against him is a destabilizing factor,” said Aleksei Makarkin, the deputy head of the Center for Political Technologies, in Moscow. “Russia wants Assad to get engaged in a political settlement from a position of strength.”
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, PresidentVladimir V. Putin of Russia will have to accomplish what no other outside power has dared attempt.
Mr. Putin can achieve a number of short-term goals. By inserting Russian military forces directly into the Syrian battlefield he can seize the initiative from Mr. Assad’s opponents and severely limit the options of the United States and its allies, not to speak of embarrassing President Obama — always a consideration for Mr. Putin.
But the glow of early Russian successes will almost certainly fade, analysts and opposition commanders say, as the realities of Syria’s grim, four-year civil war slowly assert themselves. Mr. Assad’s forces are worn down and demoralized, and they are in control of only about 20 percent of Syria’s territory. Mr. Assad himself is vilified by many in the majority Sunni population as his forces use barrel bombs and other indiscriminate weapons against an insurgency that began with political protests.
This past summer the Syrian Army lost ground to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, in the east and to a rival insurgent coalition, the Army of Conquest, in the northwest. Mr. Assad even went on television to declare that the army was facing a manpower shortage. People from government-held areas and draft-age men were increasingly joining the accelerating flow of refugees heading for Europe and elsewhere.
In a country that is 80 percent Sunni, he was also relying increasingly on Shiite fighters from Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia group, injecting a sectarian edge into an already vicious conflict.
At the same time, as the Islamic State moved toward Homs and Damascus from the east, rival insurgents were putting new pressure on the Syrian coastal provinces, where Mr. Assad’s support is strongest. The fighters advancing on that front were not from the Islamic State but from the Army of Conquest, a group that includes an affiliate of Al Qaeda known as the Nusra Front and other Islamist groups, including several more secular groups that have been covertly armed and trained by the United States.
By striking at the territory of that group and others opposed to both Mr. Assad and the Islamic State, Russia takes pressure off Mr. Assad and Hezbollah and shifts the ebb and flow in the war’s stalemate back in their favor.
. Lebanese news media even reported Thursday that Hezbollah could soon be participating in a major ground attack in northern Syria, suggesting there were plans for an assault to roll back some insurgent gains. There were also unconfirmed reports that new Iranian troops were entering Syria.
But history suggests that it will be hard for Russia to bring about a purely military resolution. The United States, with tens of thousands of troops and virtually unlimited firepower, could not subdue insurgents in Iraq or Afghanistan. And with airstrikes alone, the American-led coalition against the Islamic State has made little headway.
Russia remembers its own disastrous battle with Islamist insurgents — American-backed groups that over time spawned Al Qaeda — in the 1980s in Afghanistan.
And fears that the strikes would further radicalize people seemed to be coming true on Thursday as one previously independent Islamist brigade declared its allegiance to the Nusra Front, saying unity was necessary because America and Russia were allied against Muslims “to blur the light of truth.”
For now, though, Mr. Putin does not seem to be in a rush, particularly since state control of the news media allows him to mold public opinion, much as he did by backing rebel separatists in eastern Ukraine. His supporters say he is not looking for easy victories.
“He is playing a long game in strengthening the Russian position and showing that Russia is an independent, powerful player,” said Sergei Karaganov, an occasional Kremlin adviser on foreign policy as the honorary chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.
The Russian president may not even be looking for victory. “He wants to be engaged in a serious conversation that Russia is playing a role there that is good,” said Konstantin von Eggert, a political commentator on Kommersant FM radio. Until then, Mr. von Eggert said, “attacks on the Islamic State can wait.”
With his forces on the ground, Mr. von Eggert said, Mr. Putin can now bide his time and wait for the United States to come around to joining him — if not under the Obama administration then the next one.
“You cannot disregard him, because he has a military presence there,” Mr. von Eggert said. “It is the reality you cannot ignore. It is real guys with real weaponry on the ground in Syria that the Americans do not have.”
It is not so much Mr. Assad himself that Mr. Putin wants to defend, he added, as the principle that leaders at home should be allowed to do what they want.
“By being in Latakia and Tartus they are defending Moscow,” Mr. von Eggert said. “They are defending the principle that any government can do what it wants with its own people.”
Defending Mr. Assad is also meant to show the world that Russia and America treat their friends differently. The United States might abandon leaders like President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, but Russia is a better ally. That makes all Assad opponents fair game.
Others doubt whether Mr. Putin’s lunge into Syria was all that well thought out. A senior Western diplomat who has been deeply involved in the Syria debate said Thursday that there was no evidence that Mr. Putin had a grand strategy in mind in beginning the bombing. Instead, the official said, his calculations seemed mostly tactical.
Other officials questioned whether the Russian leader had what they called an “exit strategy” if he found that he was getting sucked further and further into Syria’s civil war.
Several American officials, trying to put the best face on Mr. Putin’s direct challenge, have said in recent days they believe that the Russian leader will soon have to take responsibility for Mr. Assad’s attacks on his own people. “Putin owns this now, even if he doesn’t know that yet,” one administration official said. “If he’s there to save Assad, then he’s responsible for controlling him.”
Many analysts say that Mr. Putin’s best hope is to push all the parties to work more urgently toward a political resolution — albeit one that is more favorable to Russia and Mr. Assad.
But that may take some doing, at least as far as the Obama administration is concerned. The White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, suggested that Mr. Putin’s real motive is to protect Russia’s military base at Tartus, Russia’s last military outpost outside of the former Soviet Union.
“The fact is, Russia is responding to a situation inside the Middle East from a position of weakness. Their influence in that region of the world is waning,” Mr. Earnest said, adding that Russia is “trying to salvage what’s left of a deteriorating situation inside of Syria.”
Then again, as with the deal Mr. Putin engineered to rid Syria of its chemical weapons, he might manage to put together a peace deal that Mr. Obama finds he cannot refuse.
Mr. Putin’s task is made somewhat easier by the fact that he enjoys high ratings at home and does not have to worry much about public opinion when it comes to a distant war.
“Putin does not care about public opinion at home because any story can be sold internally via the television,” said Orkhan Dzhemal, a prominent journalist who specializes in the Middle East. “In addition, most Russians don’t care whom we are fighting against in Syria, ISIS or not ISIS.”
Source credit : http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/02/world/middleeast/vladimir-putin-plunges-into-a-cauldron-saving-assad.html?_r=0