There can be no doubt that Russia President Vladimir Putin has raised the already high stakes for the United States and its allies in the war in Syria and Iraq. It was already a highly complex and difficult situation before Putin moved combat ground and air forces into Syria to help propup the teetering government of Bashar al-Assad. Now that complexity and difficulty has increased exponentially. The obvious question is what should be the US response? However, before we begin try to answer that question, it would be best to understand what Putin expects to gain by throwing his military into the fight.
I recently saw U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper interviewed by Freed Zakaria. When Zakaria asked Director Clapper what goal is Vladimir Putin trying to achieve by inserting Russian troops into the Syrian civil war, he replied: “I personally question whether he has some long-term strategy or whether he is being very opportunistic on a day-to-day basis, and I think his intervention into Syria is another manifestation of that.” He went on to say “What his long-term plan is, I’m not sure he has one. I think he is kind of winging this day to day.”
I recently read that one of Putin’s allies in the Duma (Russia lower house of parliament) was quoted as saying the Putin had a plan and a back up plan in Syria. Plan A was to keep Assad in power and more importantly form a coalition with the US and its allies to fight ISIS together. In exchange for Russia help, Putin expected the US and its allies would drop the sanctions imposed on Russia as punishment for its invasion of the Ukraine. If true, that explains why Putin was desperate to talk to President Obama during is visit to New York for the UN General Assembly meeting.
Apparently when President Obama said “Nyet” to that proposal, Putin fell back to Plan B. According to the Duma member the backup plan is to simply to try keep Assad in power and at the same time make it more difficult for the US by going after rebel groups which have been fighting against both Assad’s forces and ISIS. This statement rings true because despite of Putin’s assurances to the contrary, ISIS positions were not the first targets bombed in Syria by Russian aircraft. Instead they went after Syrian opposition fighters including at least one group trained by the CIA.
Apparently Putin made a decision to reassert Russia’s influence in the region, maintain its military installations in Syria by keeping Assad in power, and strengthen is ties with Russia’s only other ally in the Middle East, Iran. However, there are strong indications that Director Clapper may be right about Putin. Putting Russia’s military footprint in the Syrian conflict may be but another of Putin’s rash decisions. Russia may find itself drawn in further into that quagmire than would be otherwise be considered wise. In addition, by siding so dramatically with Assad and Shiite governed Iranian Russia is sure to alienate the Sunni Arabs who dominate the governments of most of the countries in the Middle East.
Others may disagree, but I think that the decision to send in limited numbers of US Special Forces troops to advise trustworthy Kurdish and Arab forces fighting ISIS is an excellent decision which is perhaps over due. I think that it is likely that the number of advisors will grow over time as the CIA determines that there are still other units fighting ISIS which these deserve and can profit from such assistance. Serving in the role of “force multipliers” is one of the main reasons our Army Ranger, Green Beret and Navy SEAL units exist. Once embedded in military units, these highly trained operators will advise on tactics, gather intelligence and ensure that their assigned units are well equipped with proper arms and ammunition. Make no mistake, they constitute “boots on the ground” and while they might not take part in combat, they will be in harms way. However, I see of no other way to defeat ISIS in the foreseeable future.
As a side benefit, the presence of US personnel in rebel units will ostensibly removed those rebel units from the Russians’ target list. Even Putin knows Russia cannot afford to be involved in killing US military personnel. As was mentioned earlier, instead of taking the fight to ISIS as Putin originally promised, Russian aircraft are bombing rebel units which are fighting Assad’s forces. For the foreseeable future many those rebel units will not be accompanied by US Special Forces personnel. What if anything can we do to help protect those rebel units.
If it were my decision to make, I would make such attacks as costly as possible for the Russians. Since the Russians are arming Assad’s forces and even fighting at their side, I see not reason why the US can’t assist in arming rebel forces. When Russian jets make bombing runs on rebel units, I see no reason why they cannot be greeted by rebels firing advanced shoulder fired surface to air missiles such as the very effective US made FIM-92E Stingers. Perhaps if we favor “plausible deniability”, the CIA could furnish rebel units with shoulder fired missiles made in other counties and instruct them to use these weapons effectively The Russians have sold more than 50,000 SA-7’s, deadly shoulder fired missiles, to Third World countries over the last 15 years. These weapons are easily obtainable on the black market and nearly untraceable. It would be the height of irony if in the near future Russian made missiles were were fired at Russian fighter jets.
In the final analysis it looks like Putin, ever the opportunist, has jumped into the messy Syrian conflict with both feet and that this impulsive move may turn out to be a big mistake. Assad’s forces were already tottering, and the Russians may be sucked in deeper than they than they ever bargained for in an effort to keep Syria’s President propped up. In the meantime they will be alienating most of the existing governments in the Middle East. I see no reason why we cannot add to their problems arming the rebels they are bombing. I think they will take on a new perspective when’ui4 Russian pilots start having their planes shot out from under them.