With Stepped-Up Syrian Intervention, Putin is Playing a Greater Game

0917_Putin Russia Crimea Syria
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the audience during the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia, September 4. Russia’s recent military support of Syria is more about Ukraine than the Middle East. Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters

Russia's proxy war in Ukraine has brought President Vladimir Putin a lot of trouble, from economic sanctions that have damaged the Russian economy to awkward questions from the mothers of soldiers killed in a conflict in which they are not officially fighting. But the Kremlin's latest gambit as it seeks an exit strategy in Ukraine is both bold and baffling. Doubling down on one secret war in Ukraine, the Kremlin has begun a second one—in Syria.

Over the past few weeks, U.S. intelligence has picked up ample evidence that Moscow is taking over a Syrian military air base south of the port of Latakia, defending it with Russian navy marines and at least seven T-90 tanks, plus artillery. According to Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis, "We have seen movement of people and things that would indicate that they plan to use the [Latakia airport] as a forward air operating base." At least two Russian transport planes a day have been flying tons of equipment into Latakia since September 8—including a new air traffic control tower and prefabricated housing units for up to 1,000 personnel. And in late August, the Russian Alligator-class large assault landing ship Nikolai Filchenkov passed the Strait of Bosporus, heading in the direction of Russia's small naval base at Tartus, near Latakia, her decks crammed with canvas-covered cargo that looked to observers a lot like military vehicles.

At the same time, Syrian state television has aired images of an advanced Russian-built armored personnel carrier, the BTR-82A, in action against anti-government forces north of Latakia. Syria's ambassador to Moscow, Riad Haddad, insists that "talk of [Russian] troop presence on the Syrian territory is a lie spread by the United States." But videos have appeared on social media showing armed, uniformed men shouting orders to one another in Russian—as well as pictures of Russian marines standing in front of portraits of Putin and Syria's President Bashar Assad.

Russia has long supported the Assad regime diplomatically—supplying the beleaguered Syrian government with aircraft, helicopters, arms and a Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft missile system. But the arrival of substantial numbers of troops on the ground represents a major escalation in Russia's involvement in the Syrian conflict.

The question is, why now? Assad's battle against his opponents has been a virtual stalemate since a bloody, and successful, spring assault to retake parts of Aleppo. U.S. and Turkish airstrikes on the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, haven't yet shown any sign of breaking the group's military power, though several key ISIS commanders have reportedly been killed by drone strikes and commando raids. So the most likely scenario is that Putin's Middle Eastern deployment has less to do with the military realities on the ground in Syria and everything to do with Russia's wider diplomatic game.

In late September, Putin will travel to New York for the first time in 10 years to address the United Nations General Assembly. It will be his first appearance there since the Russian annexation of Crimea last February and the war in Eastern Ukraine that followed it, which resulted in the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines MH-17 and draconian international sanctions against Russia. All indications are that Putin will use the speech to cast himself as a peacemaker in Syria—and in the process try to restore Russia's position as a pillar of world security. He's also, according to spokesman Dmitry Peskov, going to address the issue of sanctions, which (along with sinking oil prices) caused the Russian economy to shrink by over 4 percent last year. Putin desperately needs the EU and U.S. to ease sanctions—and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hinted in talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Doha in August that Russia will trade cooperation in Syria for the scrapping sanctions.

Related: Can Putin Save Assad in Syria?

In some ways, a grand bargain based on what Lavrov calls a "broad anti-terrorist front" to counter ISIS could be a workable idea. "Despite our conflicts with Russia in areas like Ukraine, this is an area of potentially converging interests," President Barack Obama told an audience of U.S. servicemen and women in early September. Both Washington and Moscow want to crush ISIS and bring an end to Syria's agony. And both want to find a way to end the conflict in Eastern Ukraine—which for Russia means a face-saving compromise that preserves some regional autonomy for the rebel Ukrainian regions Moscow has supported as they rejoin the rest of Ukraine.

But the major sticking point is over Russia's insistence that Assad remain as head of a rump state based in Latakia, the heartland of the minority Alawite sect to which the Assad clan belongs. All the major powers in the region—most crucially Turkey and Saudi Arabia—as well as most of the Syrian opposition, insist that he cannot be part of a settlement. "The bad news is that Russia continues to believe that Assad, who is their traditional partner, is somebody worthy of continuing support," said Obama. "We are going to be engaging Russia to let them know that you can't continue to double down on a strategy that is doomed to fail."

The kernel of Putin's plan is to place Russia at the center of any Syrian settlement—an attempt to recreate the Soviet Union's pivotal role in the region a generation ago. Russia's troop deployment comes after a summer of intense but discreet diplomacy. In August, Moscow hosted Major General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force, who has been instrumental in organizing the chaotic security forces of neighboring Iraq to fight ISIS. Putin also met King Abdullah of Jordan, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt and Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi. At least three delegations from the Syrian opposition have also visited Moscow this year, according to a Russian Foreign Ministry sou rce, and there is daily official contact with the Assad government. Assad has been busy too, sending his intelligence chief to Riyadh to talk to the Saudis and his foreign minister to Oman to try to rally support for a settlement that allows Assad to hold on to power in at least a small part of his country.

The aim of all these talks? Publicly, the Kremlin has been promoting the idea of creating a broad international coalition to fight ISIS. Privately, though, "the Russians are trying hard to drum up some kind of support, any kind of support, for Assad to hold on [to power]," says one senior European diplomat who has been working with Syria for over a decade. "But it's a nonstarter. It's pretty clear how the Syrian war will end: There will be some kind of rump Alawistan around Latakia ruled by former Baathists close to Assad…but certainly not Assad himself. The Kurds will have a self-governing area in the north—though the Turks will hate that. And the rest of the Sunni opposition, hopefully with ISIS droned and bombed out of existence, will be left to cobble together some kind of government in Damascus."

Meanwhile, Moscow is also preparing for an endgame in Eastern Ukraine. According to documents leaked to The Times of London by the Security Service of Ukrainian, "The Kremlin's main priority now is to 'return' [the breakaway Donetsk and Lugansk People's Republics] to Ukraine on Russian conditions.… This would maintain the territorial integrity of Ukraine and shift all the financial problems of restoring Donbass to Kiev while ensuring the government of the [rebel republics] remains under the control of the Russian special services."

In recent weeks, Russia's security services executed a mini coup in the rebel leadership of the Donetsk People's Republic by removing some of the more intractable elements. The main victim has been Deputy Premier Andrei Purgin, an implacable opponent of rejoining Ukraine, who was arrested along with his wife earlier this month. Russia has also begun to build a giant military base on the Russian side of the border with Ukraine, suggesting that it has no intention of establishing bases inside the rebel territories. And while a recent poll by Moscow's independent Levada Center showed overwhelming support for the annexation of Crimea, less than a quarter of Russians would support an all-out invasion of Ukraine to seize Donetsk and Lugansk.

Putin clearly has high hopes for his upcoming address to the U.N. General Assembly. He wants to put the Kremlin at the center of a non-U.S. led regional coalition to attack ISIS. He is banking that engagement in Syria will help break the international isolation of Russia after the annexation of Crimea and enable the Kremlin to disengage from Eastern Ukraine with pride intact. In short, Putin wants to make Russia a respected member of the world community once again.