Putin’s Syrian Roulette

LONDON – Two recent tragedies – the downing of a Russian civilian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula and the terrorist massacre in Paris two weeks later – seemed to give Russia and the West something to agree upon: the Islamic State (ISIS) must go. But a closer look at Russia’s military operations in Syria – not to mention Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane – suggests that it would be premature to conclude that Russian and Western objectives can be brought into alignment.

Of course, Russia claims that its Syrian intervention is aimed at defeating the Islamic State and “other terrorists.” But, according to the US State Department, more than 90% of Russian airstrikes so far have been directed not at ISIS or the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, but at the armed groups that are fighting both ISIS and Russia’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In fact, ISIS has made advances in Aleppo since the airstrikes began.

This is not to say that annihilating ISIS is not on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s agenda. It almost certainly is. But he also has other objectives: to protect Assad’s regime, to expand Russia’s military presence and political influence in the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, and perhaps even to push up the price of oil.

So far, Russian airstrikes have been concentrated in Latakia, Hama, and Idlib, where they have enabled Assad’s regime to make several advances. Putin seems to be trying to help Assad secure his coastal strongholds, toward which armed rebels made significant advances in August and September. These areas are part of the so-called “useful Syria,” which also includes the Lebanese border, Damascus, parts of Aleppo, and major cities in western, southern, and central Syria. Assad must maintain control over these areas to fortify his position in any political negotiations and eventual settlement, including a potential partition.