What Putin is doing in the Middle East

Updated 5:47 AM EST, Mon November 2, 2015

Story highlights

Jonathan Adelman: Russia is trying to project image of reliable ally in Middle East

Moscow forced America's hand over sending forces to Syria, he says

Editor’s Note: Jonathan Adelman is a professor at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN) —  

Russia’s bold but limited military move into Syria has upended the strategy of the United States and its allies, who have reacted with plans to put U.S. boots on the ground.

The White House announced Friday it would be sending “less than 50” Special Operations forces to northern Syria to offer logistical support to local Kurdish and Arab forces fighting the terrorist group ISIS.

The move follows Russia’s decision a month ago to join the conflict in Syria. That announcement was widely derided in the West, echoing the repeated dismissal of Vladimir Putin’s “machismo.” But the reality is that such criticism fails to account for the successes of the Putin-Sergey Lavrov team – a success that is underscored by Moscow’s forcing President Barack Obama’s hand over troops in Syria.

Many Russians feel that the greatest disaster of the 20th century was not the Great Patriotic War, which killed about 27 million Russians by 1945, but the disintegration of the Soviet Union, a point Putin made in 2005 when he lamented this “major geopolitical disaster of the century.”

Since then, Putin, a conservative nationalist, has regained the summer playground of Joseph Stalin and parts of the left-bank Ukraine, which were under Russian control for more than 300 years. Putin also captured Crimea, which Catherine the Great annexed in 1783 and where she established a new naval base.

And while he has been condemned abroad, he has been rewarded at home with almost 90% support in polls.

Now, Putin’s government has moved from providing massive arms shipments to the failing Bashar al-Assad regime to making a bold move on the ground and in the air.

No doubt emboldened by the fact that the clock is running down on Obama’s time in office, Russia has (falsely) claimed its intervention was aimed at ISIS rather than moderate secular rebels. And although some estimates place the personnel deployment at around 2,000 and a few dozen jets, that presence, along with long-range cruise missiles, means Putin has been able to project great power strength even while minimizing the chance of losses.

All this is to help Moscow project itself as a decisive and reliable ally to partners in the region, an implied contrast with the United States. True, talks this week between pro- and anti-Syrian government forces agreed on the need to launch a “credible, inclusive, nonsectarian” political process. But by intervening forcefully, Russia keeps its options open of either keeping Assad in place or else dumping him if convenient.

Meanwhile, Russia appears to have a careful strategy vis-à-vis Iran. By arming the Iranians and preserving Alawite Syria and Shiite Iraq, including through the announcement of a four-way intelligence-sharing agreement between Iraq, Iraq, Russia and Syria – Moscow is aligning with an Islamic fundamentalist regime that likely sees itself as a rising power in the region.

But Russia has concluded a multibillion-dollar arms sale with Egypt, sold nuclear reactors to Jordan and Egypt and may cooperate on building 16 reactors with Saudi Arabia. By the end of 2015, the kings of six Sunni Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and the Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates, will have visited Putin in Moscow.

The goal may well be an effort to achieve some kind of resolution – or “victory” – in Syria before pivoting to exert its influence elsewhere in the region. By fighting ISIS, Russia demonstrates its ability to tackle Sunni extremists head-on and fill the vacuum left by a retreating America. Putin may have in mind a lesson expressed by the late al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who said, “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.”

All this suggests that even as the United States has sought to withdraw from the Middle East, Russia has tried to position itself to become a major player. Obama’s backpedaling over not putting U.S. forces on the ground in Syria, a move that appears a direct response to Russian maneuvering, simply underscores the shift in influence.

Putin’s critics might be right in arguing he is making a big mistake, and entering a quagmire in Syria. But Russia just might also succeed.

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