While U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin were presenting to the global community their respective “recipes” for dealing with ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria/IS/ISIL/Daesh), the American media was reporting that Putin has “outmaneuvered” Obama by reaching an intelligence-sharing deal with Iraq and by increasing his military presence in Syria to forestall the implosion of Bashar Assad’s regime. The fact of the matter is that Obama and Putin are operating from starkly different frames of reference, and outmaneuvering each other might not be the appropriate way to evaluate this issue.
Obama is driven by zeal to not repeat the adventuristic swagger of his predecessor, George W. Bush, which got the United States stuck in the Iraqi quagmire from 2003 to 2009. Obama is also still presiding over a losing war in Afghanistan, where the Taliban are determined to expel the United States. The administration’s strategy for handing over Afghanistan to American-trained forces is not working, as was obvious in the Taliban’s victory in the city of Kunduz at the end of September. The United States is relying on air campaigns to defeat Taliban forces, but the latter is reported to still be in control of that city. Thus, the grim state of affairs in Afghanistan does not provide any encouragement to Obama to take bold actions in Syria or Iraq against ISIS, except to use air power. Being the strongest military power in the world, Americans hate defeat more than any other country. As one observer notes, “It’s not easy for many Americans to think deeply about battlefield disaster. American culture is a victory culture.”
Putin, on the contrary, seems to be operating from a clean mental slate, and under strategic amnesia. He acts as if he has forgotten the defeat of Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan. He appears to disregard the fact that the Islamist zealotry of Afghanistan’s mujahedeen in the 1980s is very much alive within the ranks of ISIS fighters in 2015. Putin’s military is stepping into Syrian hell, where “ISIS rules” are in operation.
The first ISIS rule is to not let any outside power out of the Syrian quagmire without handing it a decisive defeat. Obama understood that rule by remembering what Iraqi insurgents almost did to U.S. forces from 2003 to 2007. That is one reason he appears to be too careful about reentering Iraq; and that is why he is only using air power against ISIS in Syria.
Obama’s palpable reluctance to plunge U.S. troops into the Syrian deathtrap also stems from the fact that he knows there is no chance for any politically reliable or military force in Syria to fight ISIS. He also recognizes the least publicly discussed fact that no Arab country, including Jordan, is about to commit ground troops to the Syrian theater of operations. Under these circumstances, if U.S. ground troops were to be deployed in Syria, they would have to rely on their own resourcefulness to defeat ISIS, a scenario that does not appear probable in the foreseeable future.
The second ISIS rule is that it will absorb any amount of human casualty to defeat enemy forces. This rule scares the daylights out of all current participants in the Syrian conflict. Even the renowned Iranian sense of martyrdom is sustaining the military involvement of that country by heavily relying on Hezbollah fighters, and, to a lesser extent, its own Quds force.
Vladimir Putin seems to have forgotten the extent to which Soviet forces absorbed defeat before being ousted from Afghanistan in 1989. He has decided to plunge into Syria with both eyes open. According to the Pentagon, Russia has dispatched “aircraft, tanks and missiles into the war-wracked country.” This development is also highlighted by the fact that Russia reached an intelligence-sharing agreement with the Iraqi government about ISIS. Since the United States already shares intelligence with Iraq on the movement of ISIS forces, it remains wary of this development, which is bound to increase the “fog of war” in Syria.
Russia demonstrated its eagerness to enter the Syrian conflict by starting a bombing campaign on the city of Homs, where the Western-backed Free Syrian Army is in control. The sole purpose of the bombing was to strengthen Assad’s regime.
Putin’s ideal solution would be an alliance between Russia and the United States to eradicate ISIS, as Obama suggested in his U.N. General Assembly speech in late September. “The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict,” he said. “But we must recognize that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the pre-war status quo.” What that means is that an acceptable solution for the United States is a Syria without Assad, while Russia rejects that solution as unacceptable.
Putin once depicted the Soviet Union’s implosion in 1991 as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the last century and is resolute about reversing that tragedy. His doggedness to reassert Russia’s presence in Syria and to rebuild Russia’s image as a great power is blinding him to the long-term implications of committing military forces to that country. It is also a well-known fact that Putin is troubled about the growing presence of Chechen fighters in Syria, a large number of whom are bound to return to their homeland to continue their ongoing war with Russian troops.
Thus, Putin’s decision to enter the Syrian quagmire is motivated by at least two strategic objectives. First, he sees Obama’s reluctance to widen the U.S.’ involvement in Syria as a sign of weakness and as an occasion to fill that gap by inserting himself into the conflict. Secondly, Putin sees the Assad regime as the last opportunity for Russia to sustain its strategic presence and to play a role in deciding who would succeed Assad when/if his regime falters. In this sense, Putin envisions Russia holding some cards in deciding the ultimate resolution to the Syrian conflict, which may or may not include Assad, but would still keep Russia’s presence intact.
This leads to the third ISIS rule, that no Western power will be allowed to play any role in the future of Syria or Iraq, or, for that matter, in the nature of government in neighboring states. ISIS’ eyes are already set on Egypt and Jordan. Once the future of Syria is fully determined—meaning once Syria is fully destabilized—ISIS is likely to raise the heat on the regimes of Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan.
Obama is wary of these potential developments because the destabilization of either regime would leave Israel without any neighboring state that has accepted it as a legitimate entity. Given Israel’s awesome military power—the construction of which the United States played an extremely crucial role—it is not in need of such recognition from any Arab state. However, a potential regime change in Egypt or Jordan is likely to bring Israel into direct conflict with ISIS. Considering Putin is so focused on rebuilding Russia’s emergence as a global power, he may not have paid much attention to such long-term nettlesome scenarios.
ISIS, on the contrary, is fully aware of its own destructive potential and will widen its focus of attack on Russian military personnel as well. The bloody saga of Russian involvement seems to have only just begun.