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Putin gambit on Syria war proves to be dual-edged; He has benefited from it, but sacrifice of blood and treasure, risks a quagmire

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The secretary of state met with the Russian foreign minister and
was to meet with President Vladimir V. Putin in an effort to smooth
differences over planned talks.

Eleven weeks after Moscow launched its first airstrikes in Syria,
the screams of Russian warplanes have become so familiar in rebel-
held areas that even children recognize them. But the military map
of the conflict has changed little, and the Kremlin’s forces have
become another set of players in a civil war that seems to defy
solution.

While the air campaign, begun in a burst of enthusiasm on Sept.
30, has blunted rebel advances, it has had minimal effect on the
jihadists of the Islamic State, the declared target, and it has made
an already dire humanitarian crisis even worse.

Instead, the campaign’s greatest effects may have been on the
political fortunes of Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, who has
leveraged Russia’s intervention to make himself a necessary
interlocutor in efforts to end the Syrian civil war.

Yet his gambit in Syria is proving to be a double-edged sword. It
has come at great expense: in Russian lives, resources, a dangerous
clash with Turkey and other costs that could grow significantly in
the months ahead. Russia, like the United States, has found that air
power alone has done relatively little to shift the status quo on
the ground, leaving it dependent on the distant hope that a
political process can find a way out.

For now, as the United States pushes for new peace talks between
the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad and the
opposition, everyone involved realizes that Mr. Putin’s cooperation
has become essential, though not necessarily a guarantee of success.

“With this military escalation, the Russians have put themselves
back at the center of the Syrian equation and at the forefront of
the diplomatic stage,” said Noah Bonsey, a Syria analyst with the
International Crisis Group, “But on the ground, returns on their
military investment have proven limited and are unlikely to
improve.”

Frederic C. Hof, a former State Department official for Syria in
the Obama administration and a senior fellow at the Atlantic
Council, said, “What matters is ground power, and that is where we
have not seen anything terribly significant in the regime-Russian
combination so far.”

On Monday, the European Union delayed a decision on whether to
renew its sanctions against Russia, as cracks appear in the once-
unified support for punitive measures against Mr. Putin. Secretary
of State John Kerry was in Moscow on Tuesday, as well, seeking to
narrow the gaps with Mr. Putin so that new peace talks on Syria can
be scheduled for early next year.

But Mr. Putin has paid a price for this improvement in his
diplomatic standing and is likely to soon feel just as pressured as
President Obama and European leaders to find a political solution to
the Syrian conflict.

As it struggles economically because of low oil prices and
international sanctions, the last thing Russia needs is a quagmire
requiring continued investment while possibly souring the mood at
home and fraying relations with other countries.

Already, Russia has seen hundreds of citizens killed in the
terrorist bombing of an airliner as it left the Egyptian resort of
Sharm el Sheikh, and relations with Turkey were ruptured after
Turkish fighter jets shot down a Russian warplane. In addition to
the loss of life, the disasters cut the Russian public off from
their two favorite and most affordable vacation spots, just as they
are beginning to feel the pinch of inflation.

And there remains the possibility of blowback by Russian-
speaking jihadists, thousands of whom have joined the ranks of ISIS
and could seek to return home to carry out attacks.

So while it remains true that the United States and Europe need
Mr. Putin to deal with troubles around the world, in Afghanistan,
Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, it is becoming increasingly
clear that Mr. Putin might need their help, too.

Mr. Kerry met for nearly four hours on Tuesday evening with Mr.
Putin in the Kremlin, in talks intended to smooth differences over a
planned round of Syria negotiations set to take place in New York on
Friday.

Among the issues to be decided in the run-up to the proposed
talks is which of the dozens of militias fighting in Syria should
speak for the Syrian opposition, and which should be designated
terrorist organizations.

The United States, Mr. Kerry said, was not seeking Mr. Assad’s
ouster per se, but rather considers it unlikely he can preside over
a successful settlement.

Moscow said at the start that it was going after the Islamic
State, which controls territory in eastern Syria and in Iraq. But
instead it has mostly bombed rebel forces in the country’s
northwest, near the threatened stronghold of Mr. Assad and his
Alawite sect, leading many to conclude that its primary goal is to
sustain his rule.

In some areas, like near the government-held coastal enclave of
Latakia, Russian air support has helped stop rebel advances. And
south of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, government forces have gained
territory, although most of it is sparsely populated.

Perhaps the government’s greatest achievement since the Russian
airstrikes began was to break the siege by Islamic State fighters of
the Kweiras military air base near Aleppo.

In rebel-held territory, the Russian campaign has added a new
level of terror, creating a fresh wave of civilian refugees and
damaging critical infrastructure, according to opposition activists
and international monitors.

“The Russian bombing is worse than that by the regime,” said
Shadi al-Owaini, an anti-government activist in northwestern Syria
whose office was recently destroyed by what he thinks was a Russian
bomb.

Residents of opposition areas had grown accustomed to attacks by
the Syrian government, but the Russian airstrikes have proved to be
more accurate and destructive, Mr. Owaini said.

Like the United States in its entanglement with ISIS, Russia is
relearning the old lesson that no matter how damaging, airstrikes
can accomplish little in the absence of reliable ground forces to
take and hold territory.

After nearly five years of conflict, Assad forces are exhausted
and lacking the manpower to gain significant ground.

For now, at least, the United States is pressing for Russian
cooperation on peace talks. Russia has agreed in principle to push
for talks but dismisses most of the Syrian opposition as terrorists,
and it remains unclear if Moscow will agree to talks with a new
opposition body formed in Saudi Arabia this month. Also unclear is
if Russia will agree to the departure of Mr. Assad in some
transitional process — a condition the opposition insists on.

But if there is little change on the battlefield, Mr. Putin’s
resistance may begin to dwindle.

 

This article was written by Ben Hubbard from International New York Times and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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