Yesterday the New York Times published the following maps of Russian and American air strikes in Syria since September 25. Kurds hold the green areas, ISIS the pink, other Syrian rebels hold the yellow, and the government holds the blue. The first map shows Russian strikes, and the second shows American:
I have a few thoughts. First, if anyone believes that Russia is in Syria primarily to stop ISIS, then this chart should dispel those illusions. The strikes are obviously clustered along the front lines between rebel forces and Assad’s remaining areas of control. Russia’s intervention is to rescue Assad, full stop.
Second, from the number of strikes, it appears that Russia is doing more than just helping Assad hang on. Indeed, Syrian forces have announced a “wide-ranging ground offensive” in the aftermath of the first waves of Russian strikes. Putin and Assad are making a bid for victory, or at the very least a decisive change in momentum.
Third, the extremely limited scope of American attacks (though each symbol can denote more than one strike) demonstrates not just the inadequacy of the overall American effort but also the lack of real allies on the ground. Yes, we’ve helped the Kurds in the north, but no one believes that they’re the ultimate answer in Syria — just as they can’t be the ultimate answer in Iraq. The Kurds don’t want Syria. They want their own nation.
In short, Russia has an ally and a clear objective. We’ve got an objective (“degrade and defeat ISIS”) but no allies with national reach. Thus, while Russia is undoubtedly risking its own quagmire, it’s better-positioned for a strategic victory — one that could well position it as the dominant international power in the Middle East.