To American officials, Russian involvement in defusing the Syria mess seemed just a few months ago like a useful spinoff of the Iran nuclear deal. At the last negotiating session in Vienna, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is said to have turned to his "P5-plus-1" colleagues and proposed similar cooperation in resolving other Middle East disputes.
President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry were hopeful about working with the Russians on a "managed transition" away from a weakened President Bashar al-Assad. "I do think the window has opened a crack for us to get a political resolution in Syria, partly because both Russia and Iran, I think, recognize that the trend lines are not good for Assad," Obama told reporters at the White House on Aug. 5.
Back then, the enthusiasts for greater Russian involvement in the Middle East included many traditional U.S. allies who also seemed eager to play the Russian card. Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman traveled to Moscow; so did U.A.E. leader Mohammed bin Zayed. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir met with Kerry and Lavrov in Qatar. An ominous sign of what was really ahead -- a Russian-Iranian alliance to bolster Assad -- came with the Moscow visit of Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran's Quds Force. But otherwise, this looked until a week ago like a diplomatic love boat.
Obama and his allies failed to anticipate that Russian President Vladimir Putin would come armed to the negotiating table -- and prepared to use his weapons to gain military leverage. Putin embodies a kind of muscular diplomacy the U.S. disdained over the last three years of halfhearted attempts to train and equip the Syrian opposition. Obama's failure to develop a coherent strategy left the field open for Putin.
The speed and decisiveness of Russian action appear to have taken the administration by surprise, prompting Kerry to voice "grave concerns." A U.S. official said the intelligence community predicted that Russia would provide indirect support to Assad, such as training and advisers, but that "direct military intervention was not considered the most likely" response.
A close source to Assad's regime blasted what he claimed was chronic American misunderstanding of Syria. "The scandal is how amazingly incompetent American intelligence is," he wrote in an email. "Not only were U.S. officials predicting until weeks ago that the Russians could abandon Assad, ... U.S. intelligence could not even pick up on what the Russians were doing, the logistical, technical, military and manpower preparations ... [ to] execute such an unprecedented mission."
Though Putin claimed Monday that Russia was intervening to fight the Islamic State, so far his targets have mostly been the anti-Assad rebels who were advancing in Homs and Hama in western Syria, threatening Assad's ancestral homeland of Latakia in the northwest. U.S. officials may protest, but they are "de-conflicting" military operations with the Russians, which many Syrians translate as cooperation.
Putin's air force may prop up Assad temporarily, but the Russians are playing a dangerous game in backing a leader despised by Sunni Muslims across the Arab world. A blunt warning comes from Maj. Issam Al-Rayyes, a rebel spokesman: "Any power that stands with Assad in killing Syrians is an enemy of the Syrian people."
As the Russian military goes to war against jihadist fighters, 35 years after its ill-fated invasion of Afghanistan, Putin may imagine that he's banishing another ghost of the fallen Soviet Union. But he might review a 1991 study of lessons from Afghanistan, prepared by Russia's Frunze military academy and translated into English with the title "The Bear Went Over the Mountain." The Russian authors cite the mujahedeen's "cunning," "surprise," "very broad agent reconnaissance network" and "intimate" knowledge of the battlefield. Russian citizens "did not understand why their sons were being conscripted for battle in a strange land," notes the translator.
Obama may have misjudged the danger of Russian military intervention in Syria. But the same may prove true of Putin himself.