How to Play Putin's Game in Syria

Image: Flickr/U.S. State Department. Public Domain.

Moscow wants prestige. That means the conflict is not as zero-sum as it may seem.

Two weeks after Vladimir Putin announced that Moscow had “generally fulfilled” its aims in Syria and would withdraw the “main part” of its forces, Russia’s defense ministry revealed plans to purchase 10,300 medals for returning troops. The triumphant display—intended separately for the West, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, and the Russian public—belies a more complicated truth. Putin’s real accomplishment in Syria was not in improving Assad’s position, and Russian operations may not significantly change. Rather, Putin's true success has been elevating Moscow's standing in the international community. Russia is today an indispensable powerbroker in Syria, and Putin may well try to leverage his gains against concessions on Ukraine and on European sanctions. Washington should be wary of this, but it should not be deterred from working with Russia to end the Syrian civil war.

In announcing the withdrawal, Putin presented a narrative to the West wherein Russia is part of the solution in Syria, and he is not necessarily wrong. Russia has pressured Assad into negotiations; it has helped maintain a partial cease-fire that, despite violations, has been surprisingly successful; and now it is laying the groundwork to pressure Assad further.

An openness to compromise serves Moscow’s interests. Though Russia could effect a military solution by crushing Assad’s opposition, this would deny Moscow its newfound relevance. Putin’s cooperation is critical for the kind of multilateral, political solution the United States hopes to achieve in Syria. By facilitating this settlement, Putin further raises Russia’s international stature and bargaining power.

To Assad, Russia sent a reminder that Moscow is the arbiter of his future. Despite their outwardly cooperative stances, Putin and Assad have had a tense relationship. In January 2016, the Financial Times even reported rumors that Putin had tested the waters of a post-Assad Syria, only to be angrily rebuffed by Assad. Even if Iran were to compensate for Russia’s withdrawal with additional troops, it is worth remembering that it was prior to the Russian air campaign—when Assad was predominantly reliant on Iran and Hezbollah—that the opposition made its most substantial gains. Without Russian airpower, Assad will struggle to gain and even hold territory if opposition groups rebound. Sending this message to Assad reaffirms Putin’s message to the West.

Ultimately, Putin’s most important audience may be domestic. The “victory” in Syria feeds into a Cold War-style narrative played out on televisions across Russia: Russia has reclaimed some portion of its superpower status and now faces off against its old rival, the United States. This nationalistic fervor is, in a slowing economy, more important than ever for legitimizing Putin’s own regime.

So if Russia can force Assad to capitulate on key issues and can help end the war in Syria, should the United States give Putin further recognition? Would doing so suggest to Russia that its interventions can be rewarded? Moreover, if Russia tries to barter cooperation on Syria against concessions on Ukraine and European sanctions, is it possible to avoid a tradeoff that compromises U.S. interests?

These are legitimate concerns, and the United States should try to counter new Russian adventurism—but not at all costs. The war, after all, has resulted in the deaths of what some estimate to be over 470,000 people. Terrorist groups are proliferating in Syria and conducting attacks in the region and in the West. And the flow of millions of refugees threatens the stability of Syria’s neighbors and the European Union.

To work effectively with Russia, the United States should recognize Putin’s consolidated foreign and domestic policy perspective and use this to its advantage. For several years, Putin’s foreign-policy circle has been shrinking and as the diversity of viewpoints has diminished, so has the variety of regional priorities and the distinction between foreign and domestic politics. If success abroad is a pillar of support at home, then Putin’s zero-sum game is not necessarily between Russian and U.S. interests, but between Russian prestige and U.S. prestige. A compromise that benefits Putin’s image and serves U.S. interests is not impossible then, but it must be accompanied with simultaneous pressure.

Washington can offer two bargaining chips to encourage Moscow’s cooperation on Syria. It can frame these as “concessions,” but in reality they are sound policy options regardless of Putin’s demands.