Putin seeks ground war suc­cess in Syria where oth­ers failed

Rus­sian troops to fight Is­lamic State

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY ROWAN SCAR­BOR­OUGH

Vladimir Putin views the Syr­ian army and its Ira­nian al­lies as in­ca­pable of de­feat­ing the Is­lamic State in Syria, prompt­ing the Rus­sian pres­i­dent to di­rectly in­ter­vene in re­cent weeks by set­ting up an air base and send­ing in tanks, ar­tillery and jet fight­ers, a re­port to Congress says.

Mr. Putin’s bold yet risky move of putting troops on the ground di­rectly con­fronting a ter­ror­ist group con­trasts sharply with the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s strat­egy of an air cam­paign over Syria but lit­tle other mil­i­tary ac­tion in that coun­try.

The Is­lamic State con­trols wide sec­tions of ter­ri­tory in Iraq and in Syria, where it has pro­claimed a cap­i­tal of Raqqa in Syria’s east.

An­a­lysts at the Con­gres­sional Re­search Ser­vice de­liv­ered an as­sess­ment to law­mak­ers Fri­day that says Mr. Putin is help­ing his ally, Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad, and pro­tect­ing Rus­sia’s south­ern flank in the Cau­ca­sus, where Is­lamist fight­ers con­gre­gate and de­ploy.

“Rus­sia’s re­cent ac­tiv­ity in Syria also may be mo­ti­vated by an as­sess­ment that the Syr­ian mil­i­tary forces are be­com­ing less ca­pa­ble and that Ira­nian sup­port may be in­ad­e­quate to pre­serve the As­sad regime,” said the re­port. “Moscow’s pri­mary in­ten­tions may in­clude safe­guard­ing the As­sad regime, pre­serv­ing Rus­sian naval ac­cess to Syria, and chal­leng­ing U.S. pol­icy to­ward Syria.”

The re­port added: “Putin’s re­cent call for an all-out ef­fort against the Is­lamic State also may stem from the siz­able num­ber of ji­hadist fight­ers from the North Cau­ca­sus fight­ing in Syria, who may pose a se­ri­ous prob­lem for Moscow should they re­turn to Rus­sia.”

If Mr. Putin does view the war against the Is­lamic State as stag­nant, he has an ally in Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Gen. Dempsey told re­porters this month that the war is “tac­ti­cally stale­mated.”

Rus­sia’s mil­i­tary com­mit­ment to Syria sent the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion scrab­bling to ad­just a pol­icy bat­tered by both Democrats and Repub­li­cans. The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s plan to put ground troops in Syria in the form of mod­er­ate rebels has ba­si­cally failed. Fewer than a half-dozen fight­ers re­main in the coun­try af­ter a num­ber of their col­leagues were killed.

Pen­tagon press sec­re­tary Peter Cook said Fri­day that De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash­ton Carter spoke by phone with his coun­ter­part, Rus­sian De­fense Min­is­ter Sergei Shoigu, to en­sure that each side un­der­stands the other’s in­ten­tions in Syria. The call ef­fec­tively un­froze con­tact be­tween the two mil­i­taries.

Mr. Carter has been the most out­spo­ken critic of Rus­sian ac­tions in Europe. He said in Au­gust that Mr. Putin’s regime, which an­nexed Crimea and in­vaded Ukraine, is now an “an­tag­o­nist” — some­thing it had not been for decades.

But Rus­sia’s move in Syria is more com­pli­cated be­cause Mr. Putin says he shares the same goal as the U.S. — de­feat­ing the Is­lamic State, also known as ISIL and ISIS.

While Mr. Carter has been a harsh critic, Sec­re­tary of State John F. Kerry has taken the lead in talk­ing with the Rus­sians. Mr. Kerry’s re­cent state­ments on Syria seem to be shift­ing as he ad­justs to the fact that Rus­sia has be­come a much big­ger player in Syria.

He spoke Tues­day with Rus­sian For­eign Min­is­ter Sergey Lavrov. Af­ter­ward, the State Depart­ment press of­fice is­sued a state­ment: “Sec­re­tary Kerry also reaf­firmed the U.S. com­mit­ment to fight ISIL with a coali­tion of more than 60 coun­tries, of which As­sad could never be a cred­i­ble mem­ber, and em­pha­sized the U.S. would welcome a con­struc­tive Rus­sian role in counter-ISIL ef­forts. The Sec­re­tary stressed that there is no mil­i­tary so­lu­tion to the over­all con­flict in Syria, which can only be re­solved by a po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tion away from As­sad.”

In Lon­don on Satur­day for talks with the Bri­tish for­eign sec­re­tary, Mr. Kerry sug­gested that Mr. As­sad’s exit is opened-ended.

“We have said that As­sad has to go. But how long, what the modal­ity is — that’s a de­ci­sion that has to be made in the con­text of the Geneva process and ne­go­ti­a­tions,” Mr. Kerry said.

Rus­sia has a long history of sup­port­ing the As­sad fam­ily dy­nasty, which granted it a naval base and gives Moscow an av­enue for sig­nif­i­cant in­flu­ence in the Mid­dle East and a way to main­tain eco­nomic and mil­i­tary ties with Iran.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A satel­lite im­age with an­no­ta­tions shows Rus­sian trans­port air­craft, he­li­copters, tanks, trucks and armed per­son­nel car­ri­ers at an air base in Latakia province, Syria.

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