Putin is serious about entering Syria — and not to go after ISIS

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Source: Business Insider – by Michael B. Kelley (Bremmer: Putin is serious about entering Syria — and not to go after ISIS)

The regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad is weakening, and one of Assad’s primary backers — Russian President Vladimir Putin — is upping the ante.

“Assad has lost significant territory over the past months; Putin is not about to tolerate his ouster,” geopolitical expert Ian Bremmer, the president of Eurasia Group, told Business Insider in an email.

The regime has recently lost significant territory to Al Qaeda-led rebels in the north, Islamic State militants in the country’s center, and nationalist rebels in the south.

The West, meanwhile, is ramping up air operations against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, as throngs of Syrian refugees flee Assad’s barrel bombsand attempt a daunting trip to Europe.

Western actions that bolster rebel forces in the north — where they are fighting the regime in Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, and ISIS in the countryside — and weaken Assad further could contribute to a settlement to end the war. This is where Putin becomes worried.

“If the West succeeds in turning the tide of the war while Assad is vulnerable, the political outcomes in Syria are more likely to be dictated by the US,” Bremmer said. “Which means Putin needs to bolster Assad now.”

And Russia seems to be doing just that: Russian military experts in Syria are inspecting and enlarging air bases. Others are setting up housing units for up to 1,000 personnel. Advisers are meeting with Iranian and Syrian counterparts in the capital. Russian drones and fighter planes are surveilling non-ISIS rebels in the country’s north. And Russian armored personnel carriers with Russian-speaking troops are involved in fighting.

A spokesman for Russia’s foreign ministry told The New York Times that Moscow had “always supplied equipment to them for their struggle against terrorists.”

Russia, however, agrees with Assad and Iran in its characterization of all rebels as terrorists, and given Putin’s priorities, he most likely isn’t too worried about ISIS.

Russia’s surge in support is “less likely to mean helping the Assad regime combat ISIS directly — that’s expensive and a job that the Russians would rather see the West take on (and suffer the consequences of),” Bremmer said. “But rather to best position Assad for the eventual terms of a weakened or post-ISIS Syria.”

Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, saidon Twitter that Russian and Iran knew that without Assad, “there is no regime in Syria to secure their interests.”

Consequently, he added, it doesn’t matter if they like him — because he’s the “only game in town.”

Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif confirmed Tehran’s view when he told reporters that those “who have set a condition about the Syrian president in the past two years should be blamed for the continued war and they should account for the bloodshed.”

That statement does not stand up to scrutiny: From January to July, regime forces were responsible for more than three-quarters of the 10,300 recorded civilian fatalities inside Syria.

And since the war began in 2011, regime barrel bombs have killed more than 12,000 people, dwarfing the combined number killed by ISIS and Al Qaeda.

Nevertheless, Russia does not seem too worried about the West, given that the US has largely avoided Syria, and Europe is already looking for a way out of sanctions against Russia over Ukraine.

“Clearly Putin’s not particularly bothered by continuing to frustrate the United States,” Bremmer said. “And the Europeans aren’t going to punish him for military engagement in Syria — they’re more interested in coming to terms with Assad just as they’re more prepared to see a frozen conflict in Ukraine (see Hollande’s comments on his hopes to end sanctions).”

The fallout of all of this, according to Bremmer, will be more chaos — and more refugees headed to Europe.

“As the West presses ISIS while Russia provides direct support for Assad, the Syrians are caught in the middle,” Bremmer said. “Anyone that can find a way out will. And the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe, four years in the making, is guaranteed to expand for a fifth.”

Putin is serious about entering Syria — and not to go after ISIS


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