President Barack Obama's Press Secretary Josh Earnest recently said that the administration was unsure about Russia's motivations for its military build-up in Syria. While Middle East policy has not been a bright spot for the Obama administration — except for the nuclear agreement with Iran — the lack of understanding of Vladimir Putin's purpose is quite surprising.
In my own view, Mr. Putin's motives are quite clear: He wants to keep his ally, Bashar Assad, in power.
When the Syrian government's military efforts began to wane in the spring and summer of 2015, Mr. Putin sought ways to bolster his ally, first by trying to convince both the United States and Saudi Arabia (as well as non-Jihadist Syrian opposition groups) to agree to a transitional government in Syria in which Mr. Assad would play a major role. This proposal was rejected by the opposition groups and by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, which demanded Mr. Assad's ouster in any agreement.
The agreement in July between Turkey and the United States, allowing the U.S. to use the Turkish air base at Incirlik to launch strikes against ISIS, also likely influenced Mr. Putin. The development greatly facilitated the U.S. military effort because the U.S. would no longer have to exclusively depend on long-range sorties from aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. And while the U.S. said it planned to use Incirlik only to launch attacks on ISIS, Moscow could not be sure of this. Turkish President Recep Erdogan has made no secret of his desire to oust Mr. Assad, and Mr. Putin may have felt that Mr. Erdogan, together with other anti-Assad forces in the world, could convince President Obama to take a more aggressive position toward Syria, especially because Mr. Assad has killed far more Syrians than ISIS has and because the existing administration policy toward Syria had been an abject failure.
Also, with the Iranian nuclear agreement having been signed, the U.S. no longer has to be sensitive to the feelings of Iran, Mr. Assad's main regional ally, and — in theory at least — might be more willing to attack Mr. Assad, thus facilitating regime change in Syria, something long abhorrent to Mr. Putin. While President Obama has been very reluctant to get more militarily involved in Syria, Mr. Putin could not be sure this policy would continue.
Under these circumstances, Mr. Putin evidently decided to put Russian aircraft and helicopters into Syria, after first fortifying (with tanks, armored personnel carriers, air-defense missiles and troops) and enlarging an air base south of Latakia. With Russian aircraft flying in the skies of Syria, the threshold for any possible U.S. attack on the Assad regime would be raised considerably. To reinforce this point Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for the resumption of military-to-military talks between Russia and the United States, previously broken off because of the Russian seizure of the Crimean Peninsula. The U.S., perhaps fearing a clash with Russian aircraft, has agreed to the request.
Through his actions, Mr. Putin has demonstrated that Moscow stands by its ally. He has thrust Russia into the heart of Middle East politics, thus achieving another of his goals, which is to demonstrate Russia is again a great power. The danger for Russia, however, is "mission creep." Should ISIS threaten the Russian-controlled air base, Mr. Putin might be tempted to send in more troops to protect it. Nonetheless, Mr. Putin has evidently decided that the risk is worth it.
While he may not get the United States to join the anti-ISIS coalition he has been proposing, at least in the short run he has helped to prevent the fall of the Assad regime, and for Mr. Putin this is a significant achievement, given all the military, economic and diplomatic support he has given to that regime.
Robert O. Freedman is a visiting professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University and the author of "Moscow and the Middle East" (Cambridge University Press. His e-mail is email@example.com.