Why Is Putin Sending Troops to Syria?

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right), Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (left) and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem (back to camera) attend a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, June 29. Russia’s involvement in Syria is growing very fast, the author writes, and Putin appears to be doubling down on his support for the Assad regime. Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

Most Americans are aware of the aggressive Russian actions in recent years in Ukraine (seizing Crimea and participating in efforts to destabilize the rest of the country) and Eastern Europe. What is less well known is Putin's effort in Syria.

A story by Michael Weiss in The Daily Beast tells us what is actually happening, as its title conveys: "Russia Puts Boots on the Ground in Syria." Not only is Russia arming the Assad regime, but there is now evidence that Russians are on the ground with Assad's forces actually operating the equipment.

Weiss refers to "compelling evidence that Russians have embedded with the Syrian military." Assad recently told Hezbollah's TV station that "We have strong confidence in the Russians, as they have proven throughout this crisis, for four years, that they are sincere and transparent in their relationship with us," and he appears to be right.

Russia's involvement is growing very fast. Alex Fishman, one of Israel's best military correspondents, reported this on August 31:

Russian fighter pilots are expected to begin arriving in Syria in the coming days, and will fly their Russian air force fighter jets and attack helicopters against ISIS and rebel-aligned targets within the failing state.

According to Western diplomats, a Russian expeditionary force has already arrived in Syria and set up camp in an Assad-controlled airbase. The base is said to be in area surrounding Damascus, and will serve, for all intents and purposes, as a Russian forward operating base. In the coming weeks thousands of Russian military personnel are set to touch down in Syria, including advisors, instructors, logistics personnel, technical personnel, members of the aerial protection division and the pilots who will operate the aircraft.

Past reports have stated that the Russians were in talks to sell the Syrians a package of MiG-29 fighter jets, and Yak-130 trainer jets (which can also serve as attack aircraft.) The current makeup of the expeditionary force is still unknown, but there is no doubt that Russian pilots flying combat missions in Syrian skies will definitely change the existing dynamics in the Middle East.

This contradicts the happy talk we've long had from the Obama administration, suggesting that Russia could be a partner in Syria and part of the solution there. Instead, Putin appears to be doubling down on his support for Assad.

Meanwhile, the United States is insisting that rebel groups it works with and arms must not attack the regime, despite its endless war crimes and attacks on civilians; they must attack only ISIS instead. What the administration still refuses to acknowledge is that the Assad regime is a jihadi manufacturing device, whose brutality largely explains the growth of ISIS.

As long as Assad is in place, ISIS will grow; Assad's attacks on Syria's Sunni population mean that he serves as a recruiter for ISIS. Because our central goal is the defeat of ISIS, we must work to remove the Assad regime, but its survival still seems to be the central Russian goal—as it is the central Iranian goal.

So American and Russian goals in Syria could not be more at odds. Putin's actions to expand Russia's military support for Assad suggest that he understands this. The question is when we will recognize that fact.

Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.