Testing Putin in Syria

NEW YORK – There has been no shortage of scrutiny of what Russian President Vladimir Putin is up to in Syria and why. Much of the analysis, though, has been narrowly focused on the short term and may be too negative in assessing his actions’ likely long-term consequences.

What we know is that Putin has decided to come to the aid of Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime. Russian bombs and missiles are now raining down on an array of armed groups that have been fighting Syrian government forces, which has given the regime the breathing space that Russia’s intervention was intended to provide.

As bad as the Assad government is, and as much as it has to answer for, this outcome is arguably preferable in the short run to the regime’s collapse. The painful truth in Syria today is that a government implosion would most likely lead to genocide, millions more displaced people, and the establishment of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate in Damascus.

Putin’s motives are a matter of speculation, but it would appear that he did not want to see Russia’s long-term ally in the Middle East fall. Moreover, he never misses an opportunity to remind the world that Russia remains a major power, able and willing to act on behalf of its perceived interests. It is also possible that he sought to distract domestic attention from a shrinking economy and the rising cost of intervention in Ukraine. Putin’s high approval ratings suggest he may well be succeeding.