OPINION

Putin’s plans for Syria

President Vladimir Putin seems set for a grand bargain over Syria. Going by reports from U.S. officials and satellite images released by various organisations, including private intelligence companies, Russia has sent offensive aircraft, advanced tanks and hundreds of troops to Syria to defend the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, its ally. The deployment, which represents the largest overseas military presence for Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union, indicates Moscow is preparing for its first major military operation outside its neighbourhood since Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. Mr. Putin is expected to present his Syria strategy at the UN General Assembly later this month. The Kremlin has apparently sought a meeting between Mr. Putin and President Barack Obama to discuss the Syrian conflict. The details of the Putin plan are yet to emerge, but statements from Russian officials and the nature of the military presence in Syria point to a two-pronged strategy — to prevent any rapid collapse of the Assad regime, and to push for talks with all the stakeholders but the jihadists, to find a political solution.

Why can’t Mr. Putin now be given a chance? The Western strategic disarray has proved disastrous for Syria. The U.S. and its European allies backed anti-Assad rebels at the beginning of the civil war, but that only aided Syria’s destabilisation and the rise of powerful jihadist groups. Then they started an airstrike campaign against Islamic State, which has been ineffective in countering the jihadists. Even a $500-million U.S. programme to train “moderate Syrian rebels” to fight IS collapsed; the Pentagon recently admitted that only four or five fighters are now on the battleground. There has to be a strategic shift in the way the world is handling the Syrian crisis, and Mr. Putin seems to be trying to effect such a shift. To be sure, there is criticism that Russia is complicit in the Syrian tragedy as it supports the Assad regime and therefore its overtures cannot be taken seriously. If Russia is complicit, so are other countries including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, the U.S. and those of the European Union. This war is not just one between a ruthless dictator and his opponents; it is a complex geopolitical confrontation in which several countries are involved, directly or through proxies. So any meaningful multilateral effort to find a solution to the conflict should be welcomed. The question is whether the two powerful groups — the West and its Gulf allies and the Russia-Iran-Syria trio — can find common ground on Syria. The ferocious rise of IS is a good enough reason for such a common ground, provided there’s the political will.