Criticism of Russia's projection of force into Syria is often laced with predictions of an impending Russian quagmire, in the fashion of the Soviet misadventure of the 1970s in Afghanistan. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Mr. Putin has made a strategic, well calibrated and thought out move on the Middle East chessboard and will soon reap significant geopolitical rewards from it.
The massive soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was aimed at occupying the country and crushing an internal Afghan rebellion against the Soviet supported government. Afghanistan's rugged mountainous terrain, coupled with the legendary Afghan hate for foreign occupiers, and the stealthy provision of sophisticated U.S. arms, put an end to that. Russia's objectives from its military thrust in the Middle East, on the other hand, are far more limited and achievable; which is what makes them of such strategic consequence.
Mr. Putin's calculations are based on five facts on the ground: First, the United States has worked itself into a quagmire in the Middle East. It has publically declared that "Assad must go," and has promised to "degrade and destroy the Islamic State," without committing the military forces to achieve either outcome. Predictably, Mr. Assad is still there and the Islamic State has grown bigger and stronger. Mr. Putin knows there is no appetite in the United States for a robust military engagement, in a part of the world where America no longer has any vital national interests.
Second, Mr. Putin is keenly aware of the damage being wreaked in Europe by the unending tide of refugees that now threaten European economies and the cohesiveness of the European Union. The Europeans realize a permanent, long term solution to their refugee nightmare lies in making the war ravaged Middle East safer for its citizens, not in building fences. Third, Russia's client, Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has been steadily losing ground in Syria's civil war, a situation that threatens land-locked Russia's only foreign naval base and its Middle East intelligence operations, a situation that Russia is obliged to correct.
Fourth, Mr. Putin recognizes the attraction of the Islamic State for radicalized citizens in the Muslim Republics of the Russian Federation, thousands of whose citizens now fight with the Islamic State and will someday return to direct their battle-hardened skills against Russia.
And finally, the dire strait of the Russian economy, that relies almost completely on global energy prices which have been in free fall for over a year. The collapse in Russia's main income stream is magnified by Western economic sanctions which have cut off Russia's access to outside capital. Putin has put all of this together and come up with a plan to, at once, offer a way out to the dithering Americans, resolve the pressures on quivering Europeans, save Russia's alliance and its military/intelligence interests in the Middle East, destroy the Islamic State, and entrench Russia into the Middle East's power equation.
Russia has entered the Middle-East fray in alliance with Iraq and Iran, and with sufficient military power to seriously damage the anti-Assad forces and those of the Islamic State. My forecast: Mr. Putin will achieve significant success on the battlefield within 30-60 days. He will then offer to join forces with the U.S.-led coalition to destroy what remains of the Islamic State, and, significantly, to help set up "safe-zones" in Syria, in which Syrian and other refugees can find a haven until conditions in their homelands improve and they can return home. The idea of safe zones in Syria has already been floated in the United Nations by the Europeans but had been deemed impractical because of Russian opposition.
For Americans and Europeans the Russian offer will be a lifeline they cannot refuse. Europeans will jump at the opportunity to shunt the flood of refugees away from Europe; while the U.S. will jump at the opportunity to destroy the Islamic State without committing its ground forces, and to finally wind down a fruitless and seemingly endless military commitment that is costing American taxpayers millions of dollars a day.
In return, Mr. Putin will demand a seat at the table to help determine the region's future; he will also demand that the future of Syria and Mr. Assad be left to Russia, and oh yes, economic sanctions relief. The U.S. may balk at sanctions relief, but European pressure will ensure that Mr. Putin gets it. Hardly a Russian quagmire!