On all fronts — diplomatic, military, covert-action, and economic — Russia is escalating against the United States in Syria. Timing is everything: There are three reasons that Russia is choosing this moment to act.
First off: January 20, 2017. Put simply, Vladimir Putin wants to maximize his control over Syria before America’s next president takes office. Remember, Putin is an obsessive analyst of U.S. politics. And like any good intelligence officer, his analysis shapes his evolving strategy. Consider, for example, how Putin praised Trump last December, just at the moment when it was likely to most please Trump. Or contemplate how the Russian president (in all likelihood) used WikiLeaks to release the hacked DNC e-mails immediately before the Democratic convention. Doing so maximized Clinton’s embarrassment. But now that Trump is plummeting in the polls, Putin, like American political analysts, is increasingly confident Clinton will win in November. And that affects what Putin does now. After all, Putin probably believes he could control Donald Trump, but he might well judge Hillary Clinton warily. Clinton’s e-mails (which Russian intelligence services probably hacked) might make her vulnerable to blackmail. But, on Russia policy, Putin knows that Mrs. Clinton is likely to be more hawkish than Trump and more aggressive than President Obama. Putin therefore wants to consolidate his influence in Syria while it remains easy to do so.
But there’s another fact. In late August 2016, Russia’s ability to increase its power in Syria is highly significant. Conducting air operations out of bases in Syria and Iran, and with Turkey now openly kneeling, Putin has today established domination over northern Syria. At the dead center of this effort are U.S.-supported rebel formations and U.S.-allied Special Operations forces. Putin designed this reality, the American military knows it exists, and President Obama pretends it isn’t real. Syrian jets last week broadcast Putin’s power by operating near U.S. ground forces, which forced the U.S. military to launch its own air patrol. And although the jets were Syrian, Putin was responsible. We know this because the U.S. military shares its operating positions in Syria with the Russians so as to prevent accidents. Russia then shares that information with Syria. And, at least in dealing with the U.S., Assad does what Putin wants. Thus, last week’s show of force by his Syrian puppet proves that Putin believes he can now stare down the U.S. military.
Third, Putin is strengthened by his new alliance with Turkey. President Erdogan has pledged subservience to Putin’s grand strategy, which is to displace U.S. global leadership. In return, the Russians are now attacking U.S.-aligned Kurdish forces to thank Erdogan. But keeping Erdogan subservient is key. For Putin, this means that Russia can disrupt U.S. efforts to support anti-Assad rebel forces. It also means that Putin can encourage Erdogan to turn a blind eye toward ISIS supply routes into Europe.
#related#It sounds conspiratorial, but Putin wants new ISIS attacks in Europe because he believes those attacks will force the West to accept the faux counterterrorist, Bashar al-Assad. Putin also senses a new political opportunity in the rubble of Aleppo. Western populations are increasingly concerned by the humanitarian suffering in Syria and by refugee migrant flows. In that sense, the “bloodied boy from Aleppo” photo serves Putin. Putin’s pummeling of Syrian civilians is strategic. By killing civilians, Putin ups the pressure on Western leaders to accept his familiar, unyielding price tag for peace: Assad’s long-term retention of power. Putin knows he can get away with killing civilians because he knows the Obama administration has no interest in challenging him.
Ultimately, Putin is escalating because he believes he now holds the physical and political trump cards in Syria. He senses that the moment for decisive action has arrived. Regardless of the dire strategic consequences to come, a near-term accidental Russian-Syrian bombing run against U.S. forces is likely.