Vladimir Putin has openly rued the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin’s yearning to re-exert Soviet – whoops, I mean Russian – global influence is no secret.
So why is it so hard for President Obama to understand the Russian leader’s intentions in the Middle East?
Having blindsided U.S. officials with his sudden infusion of tanks, planes and missiles into Syria, Putin urged the world last week to rally behind the vicious regime of Bashar al-Assad. In a UN speech, Putin proposed a “broad international coalition” (no doubt led by Moscow) that would fight terrorism.
There’s only one problem with this formula: Neither Putin nor Assad is interested in taking on the Islamic State. Indeed, the Russian president knows well but cares not that Assad’s war crimes against civilians have fueled Sunni support for the Islamic State.
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Rather, Moscow seeks to firm up Assad’s wobbly hold on power while building an unprecedented air and naval presence on the Mediterranean and projecting himself as a world leader. He also hopes to corral Obama into helping him achieve that goal.
What’s astonishing is how the administration has failed to read Putin. Despite frequent meetings between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, U.S. officials were caught by surprise by Moscow’s military actions in Syria. They were equally startled by Russian air strikes there on Wednesday – aimed not at the Islamic State but at anti-Assad militias, including some backed by Washington and its allies.
Despite administration denials, some officials still seem to nurture false hopes that Russia can rescue Obama’s failed Syria policy. They dream that Moscow will squeeze Assad to negotiate a peace deal in which the Syrian leader agrees to exit after a transition and be replaced by a government of regime and opposition figures. With an inclusive government, so the thinking goes, Sunni support for the Islamic State would fade.
Putin’s U.N. speech and Moscow’s military actions in Syria make clear that this hope is a pipe dream. Like Assad, the Russian leader considers any opposition to the Syrian regime to be the work of terrorists. To him, the 2011 peaceful uprising of middle-class Syrians who sought a better government was nothing but a Western plot.
So, as Wednesday’s bombing made clear, Putin will help Assad’s efforts to push back against non-Islamic State militias, while protecting his hold on Damascus and the Syrian coast.
Putin probably has a Plan B: Forget diplomacy. Solidify Assad’s hold on Damascus and the coast by force. Create an Assad-stan on the Mediterranean, which will become a territorial base from which Russia can exert powerful new regional influence.
Let Sunnis kill each other, let the refugees keep flowing. Wait for the West and Arab states to come begging for intelligence and cooperation against the Islamic State.
The only slim hope for surcease is that all sides might agree to a temporary ceasefire in place – but the Russians’ arrival may rule out this option.
In Syria, Obama based his hopes on diplomacy without providing any military support to moderates, which might have made a difference three years ago. Now Putin claims to be interested in diplomacy while backing his Syrian ally with force. He is too cynical for dreams.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Email: email@example.com.