Can Russia make a difference in Syria’s war?

How will Russian intervention affect the Syrian war, and what are President Vladimir Putin's true motivations in sending in military aid? Judy Woodruff gets two views from Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Nikolas Gvosdev of the U.S. Naval War College.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    We are going to turn to our next segment, which is talking to two guests about what is going on in Syria and the Russian involvement.

    And I'm just going to preface that by saying, as we have been reporting, last month, Russia started to beef up its military support to the regime in Syria. It started sending supplies and equipment, even sending attack aircraft, as this recent satellite image shows.

    So, the question is, what impact will Russia's intervention in the Syrian war have, and what is really motivating President Putin?

    For that we get two views. Nikolas Gvosdev is professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. He has written extensively about Russia. And Andrew Tabler, he is a senior fellow at the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

    Welcome to you both.

    Andrew Tabler, to you first. Why are the Russians doing this? Why are they getting involved in Syria?

    ANDREW TABLER, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy: The Russians are getting involved in Syria because they want to prop up the Assad regime.

    President Assad only controls roughly 20 to 25 percent of his territory. He's been losing ground, and quite rapidly. Russia was worried about a catastrophic collapse of the regime that could be taken advantage of by ISIS. That's why they're moving in on the surface. But there are other reason as well that have to do with Russia's place in the region.

    It's asserting its power. And also there has been some speculation that they're trying to get out of the debacle that they find themselves in Ukraine.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So more about propping up Assad than about doing away with ISIS?

  • ANDREW TABLER:

    That's right.

    It seems, based on their deployment, whether it's by — we see significant sea, air buildup with significant fighter aircraft, and augmenting airfields and naval facility. It seems they're there to support Assad in the western part of the country. The question remains, will they play a constructive role over all of the country, and how will they deploy vis-a-vis ISIS?

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And we will get into that.

    Nick Gvosdev, what exactly is Russia doing in Syria right now? What kind of material and men do they have on the ground?

  • NIKOLAS GVOSDEV, U.S. Naval War College:

    Well, as Andrew pointed out, they're putting in advanced equipment.

    They have a number of battalions arriving. They're putting in — they're reinforcing their port in Tartus, outside of Latakia. They're putting in both fighter aircraft. There are reports that long-range bombers are being readied in Southern Russia that could be flown over the Caspian, over Iranian and Iraqi airspace and then could conduct missions in Syria.

    And I think that we're seeing the Russians positioning for two things. One is of course to help bolster the Assad regime, but the other thing is to prepare a fallback plan, which is that, if Assad cannot be restored to control over most of Syria, the Russians still want to have a say in how Syria will evolve in the coming years.

    And one way they can do this is by ensuring that Assad, the Alawites, some of the Christian groups have a secure enclave along the coast that then could be used as a bargaining chip with Turkey and Saudi Arabia and the other powers for how the future of Syria would go about. And it's essentially to say that Russia, too, has a voice and a veto in what happens in the Middle East, and it's not just simply the regional powers or the United States that get to determine the future of Syria.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, Andrew Tabler, whatever the combination of reasons for their doing it, can they be successful?

  • ANDREW TABLER:

    It's very difficult.

    The Assad regime is crippled. I think this is where, analytically, the United States and Russia are just very — in very, very different places, Barack Obama not a big fan of going into Syria, obviously. Why is he betting on the opposition? Well, because Assad controls such little territory, because he's so rigid in terms of his political positions, and because he's been unable to really turn it around and retake and capture all of this territory.

    So, the Russians are betting on a failed scheme, and that's the way the United States sees it. We will have to wait and see if the Russian intervention changes the calculation and to what degree.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Nick Gvosdev, how do you see that? Do you think the Russians have the capacity to make a difference in Syria, when nobody else has?

  • NIKOLAS GVOSDEV:

    Well, it depends, as Andrew has already pointed out, to what you're trying to do. If you're trying to reestablish Assad's control over all of Syria and to grind all the opposition group, ISIS, the non-ISIS groups, into the dust, so that Assad is left in control of all of Syria, that's very difficult.

    On the other hand, if the fallback plan is to start creating these safe enclaves, both for Assad, but also for Russian interests, so that the Russian bases on the Mediterranean are secure, that could be more doable, because then you don't have to retake territory. You simply have to prevent ISIS and other opposition groups from expanding further.

    And, of course, the Russians will have a much different set of rules of engagement when they — if and when they engage in combat in Syria.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Right.

  • NIKOLAS GVOSDEV:

    They are much more prepared to use force.

    And what we have already seen over the last few days, if some of these reports are to be credited, that Syrian government strikes have gotten more accurate, have gotten better, is that a case of Russian intelligence and Russian capabilities beginning to aid the Syrian regime? We will have to see.

    But if the goal is to keep Assad in control of the Syria that he has left, the Russians are in a better position to do that.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, let's talk right now, Andrew Tabler, about the U.S. in all this.

    How do you envision, if any, cooperation, collaboration between the U.S. and Russia? We know that's what President Obama and President Putin were to talk about, and we're going to come back the Margaret Warner in a minute about that. Is it — and is this something the U.S. should do?

  • ANDREW TABLER:

    Well, you know, on the surface, there's been an effort to deconflict the two military activities, which is that so pilots don't start shooting at each other, which would lead both countries to war over something like Syria. That's something that nobody really wants.

    There's some convergence of concern over things like foreign fighters, on the breakdown of Syria and hemorrhaging people and migrants and so on elsewhere. The big issue, though, is that Russia and the United States completely differ on an end state in Syria with the…

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    On whether Assad should remain in power?

  • ANDREW TABLER:

    Well, yes.

    They — the U.S. believes that Assad should step aside and has for four years. Putin and Russia now say that President Assad must be the basis for a settlement, not that his regime would be a basis for a settlement. And that's a big difference.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, Nick Gvosdev, how do you see that? I mean, do you — what — how do you envision cooperation between the U.S. and Russia? Is this something the United States should be even considering?

  • NIKOLAS GVOSDEV:

    Well, in my own opinion on this, a lot depends on what the ultimate U.S. goals are.

    And, of course, we have sent very conflicting signals. On one hand, we appear to say we want to disengage from the region. We're reluctant to really put our own people on the ground or to really get involved. On the other hand, as Andrew has pointed out, we don't necessarily agree with the end state that the Russians would want. This, of course, would also certainly increase Iranian influence in the region as well, which is something that our strategy has worked to try to contain over the last number of years.

    So, in some ways, we have to set our own priorities first of what end state we would like and what we're prepared to do about it. What's also interesting, of course, is to see how other regional powers are beginning to assess the changed conditions.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Right.

  • NIKOLAS GVOSDEV:

    You had Prime Minister Netanyahu flew to Moscow. You had President Erdogan of Turkey in Moscow this past Wednesday to have consultations with President Putin. And it's clear that the powers of the region are now also beginning to reassess what their strategies are willing to be in light of the Russian involvement.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    A lot of moving parts here, all instigated by the move by the Russians to get more engaged in Syria.

    Nick, Nikolas Gvosdev, Andrew Tabler, we thank you both.

  • NIKOLAS GVOSDEV:

    Thank you.

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