There can be no doubt that Russia’s Vladimir Putin 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 Russian combat ground and air forces into Syria to help prop up the teetering government of Bashar al-Assad. Now the complexity and difficulty of that situation has increased exponentially. The obvious question is what should be the response of the US and its allies? However, before we begin try to answer that question, it would be best to understand what Putin expects to gain by throwing Russian solders and aircraft into that fight.
I recently saw U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper interviewed by Fareed Zakaria. When Fareed 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 Putin had a primary 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’s help in eliminating ISIS, Putin intended to insist that the US and its allies drop the sanctions they 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 his 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 back up plan was 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, some of which are supported by the US. This statement rings true. Despite 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 that is Syria than it desires. In addition, by siding so dramatically with Assad and his Shiite governed Iranian ally, Russia is sure to alienate the Sunni Arabs who dominate the governments of most of the other countries in the region
Others may disagree, but I think that the decision to send in limited numbers of US Special Forces to advise trustworthy Kurdish and Arab forces fighting ISIS was a an good decision that was perhaps over due. I think that it is also likely that the number of these US advisers should and will grow over time as the CIA determines that still other units fighting ISIS deserve and could benefit 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 with friendly military units, these highly trained solders will be able advise on tactics, gather intelligence, ensure that the host units are well equipped with proper arms and ammunition, and call in air strikes with a precision that would not be possible if not for their presence. However, make no mistake, they do constitute “boots on the ground” and while they might not take part in actual combat, they will be in harms way. However, I see of no other viable way to defeat ISIS in the foreseeable future.
As a side benefit, the presence of US personnel in rebel units ostensibly removes those units from of the Russians target list. Even Putin knows Russia cannot afford to be involved in killing US military personnel. However, as was mentioned earlier, instead of taking the fight to ISIS as Putin originally promised, Russian aircraft are bombing other rebel units which are fighting Assad’s forces. For the foreseeable future 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 on their side, I see no reason why the US can’t assist in arming rebel forces for any eventuality they may face. When Russian jets make bombing runs on rebel units I would like to see those aircraft greeted by 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 on how to use those weapons effectively. The Russians have sold more than 50,000 SA-7’s, a deadly shoulder fired missile, to Third World countries over the last 15 years and they are easily obtainable on the arms market and nearly untraceable. It would be the height of irony if in the near future Russian made missiles were to be used to try destroy 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 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 into an effort to keep Syria’s President in power. In the meantime they will be alienating most of the governments in the Middle East. I see no reason why we cannot add to the Russian problems to arming the rebels with weapons they can use to defend themselves against Russian aircraft. I think his actions in Syria will take on a new perspective for Putin when Russian pilots start having their planes shot out from under them.