The Barack Obama administration and the U.S. intelligence community have concluded that Russia is set to start flying combat missions from a new air base inside Syria, but there’s disagreement inside the U.S. government on what to do about it.
Thursday at the White House, top officials were scheduled to meet at the National Security Council Deputies Committee level to discuss how to respond to the growing buildup of Russian military equipment and personnel in Latakia, a city on the Syrian coast controlled by the Bashar al-Assad regime. Obama has called on his national security officials to come up with a plan as early as next week, as intelligence reports pour in about the Russian plans to set up an air base there. The options are to try to confront Russia inside Syria or, as some in the White House are advocating, cooperate with Russia there on the fight against the Islamic State.
The State Department had already begun pushing back against the Russian moves, for example by asking Bulgaria and Greece to deny overflight permissions to Syria-bound Russian transport planes. But the president didn't know about these moves in advance, two officials said, and when he found out, he was upset with the department for not having a more complete and vetted process to respond to the crisis. A senior administration official said Thursday evening that the White House, the State Department and other departments had coordinated to oppose actions that would add to Assad's leverage.
For some in the White House, the priority is to enlist more countries to fight against the Islamic State, and they fear making the relationship with Russia any more heated. They are seriously considering accepting the Russian buildup as a fait accompli, and then working with Moscow to coordinate U.S. and Russian strikes in Northern Syria, where the U.S.-led coalition operates every day.
For many in the Obama administration, especially those who work on Syria, the idea of acquiescing to Russian participation in the fighting is akin to admitting that the drive to oust Assad has failed. Plus, they fear Russia will attack Syrian opposition groups that are fighting against Assad, using the war against the Islamic State as a cover.
“The Russians’ intentions are to keep Assad in power, not to fight ISIL,” one administration official said. “They’ve shown their cards now.”
The U.S. intelligence now shows that Russia is planning to send a force into Syria that is capable of striking targets on the ground. Two U.S. officials told me that the intelligence community has collected evidence that Russia plans to deploy Mikoyan MiG 31 and Sukhoi Su-25 fighter planes to Latakia in the coming days and weeks. The military equipment that has already arrived includes air traffic control towers, aircraft maintenance supplies, and housing units for hundreds of personnel.
Secretary of State John Kerry called Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last Saturday to urge him to halt the Russian military buildup, but the Russian told Kerry that his military was doing nothing wrong and that Russia’s support for Syria would continue, according to one official who saw a readout of the call. That response was seen inside the administration as a rebuke of Kerry’s efforts to reach out to Moscow to restart the Syrian political process. Kerry met with Lavrov and the Saudi foreign minister on the issue last month.
This is a turn of events from the situation this summer. In July, Russian President Vladimir Putin called Obama and according to Obama, Putin was moving away from a weakened Assad.
“I think they get a sense that the Assad regime is losing a grip over greater and greater swaths of territory inside of Syria [to Sunni jihadist militias] and that the prospects for a [Sunni jihadist] takeover or rout of the Syrian regime is not imminent but becomes a greater and greater threat by the day,” Obama told the New York Times. “That offers us an opportunity to have a serious conversation with them.”
But since then, Putin has been moving away from a serious conversation with the U.S. about a diplomatic solution in Syria. Just as the Russian military buildup was beginning last week, Putin said publicly that Assad was ready to engage with the “healthy” opposition, a far cry from the process the U.S. is promoting, which would bring the Western-supported Syrian opposition into a new round of negotiations with the regime.
“Russia’s support for the Assad regime is not helpful at all, it’s counterproductive, and it’s against some of the things they have said about trying to bring about a solution,” Senator Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told me Wednesday. “It’s disappointing, but it’s been consistent with some of the policies they’ve done in the past that we think are just wrong.”
Putin is planning to focus on the fight against “terrorism” in his speech later this month at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Russia will also host a ministerial-level meeting on the sidelines about fighting extremism, which it defines as including all the groups fighting the Assad regime, including the U.S.-backed rebels.
There is concern inside the Obama administration, even among those who advocate for confronting Russian actions in Syria, that the U.S. has no real leverage to fight back. If Obama decides not to accept the Russian air force presence in Syria, he would have several options, all of which have drawbacks or limitations.
The U.S. could impose new sanctions on Russia, although the current punishments related to Ukraine have not changed Putin’s calculus, and there’s little chance European countries would join in on a new round. The U.S. might warn Russia that its base is fair game for the opposition to attack, but that could spur Putin to double down on the deployment. The U.S. could try to stop the flow of Russian arms, but that would mean pressuring countries such as Iraq to stand up to Putin and Iran, which they might not agree to.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said Wednesday he would try to impose sanctions on Russia from the Congressional side if the administration doesn’t move in that direction. He said that Russia’s military involvement in Syria will only make the terrorism threat and the refugee problems emanating from there worse.
“This is a chance for us to slap Russia hard, because what they are doing is making America less safe,” he said. “The Russians are just slapping President Obama and Secretary Kerry in the face. This is a complete insult to their efforts to try to find a solution to Syria. They’ve made Assad’s survivability more likely, which means the war in Syria never ends.”
The White House’s concerns about escalating tensions with Russia inside Syria are legitimate, but cooperating with Russian forces on the ground or in the air would undermine whatever remaining credibility the U.S. has with the Syrian opposition and the Gulf States that support it. The U.S. may not be able to stop Russia’s entry into fighting the Syrian civil war, but at a minimum America shouldn't be seen as colluding with Moscow. If that happens, the suspicion that Obama is actually working to preserve the Assad regime will have been confirmed.