First off: January 20, 2017. Put simply, Vladimir Putin wants to maximize his control over Syria before America’s next president takes office. Remember, Putin is an obsessive analyst of U.S. politics. And like any good intelligence officer, his analysis shapes his evolving strategy. Consider, for example, how Putin praised Trump last December, just at the moment when it was likely to most please Trump. Or contemplate how the Russian president (in all likelihood) used WikiLeaks to release the hacked DNC e-mails immediately before the Democratic convention. Doing so maximized Clinton’s embarrassment. But now that Trump is plummeting in the polls, Putin, like American political analysts, is increasingly confident Clinton will win in November. And that affects what Putin does now. After all, Putin probably believes he could control Donald Trump, but he might well judge Hillary Clinton warily. Clinton’s e-mails (which Russian intelligence services probably hacked) might make her vulnerable to blackmail. But, on Russia policy, Putin knows that Mrs. Clinton is likely to be more hawkish than Trump and more aggressive than President Obama. Putin therefore wants to consolidate his influence in Syria while it remains easy to do so.
But there’s another fact. In late August 2016, Russia’s ability to increase its power in Syria is highly significant. Conducting air operations out of bases in Syria and Iran, and with Turkey now openly kneeling, Putin has today established domination over northern Syria. At the dead center of this effort are U.S.-supported rebel formations and U.S.-allied Special Operations forces. Putin designed this reality, the American military knows it exists, and President Obama pretends it isn’t real. Syrian jets last week broadcast Putin’s power by operating near U.S. ground forces, which forced the U.S. military to launch its own air patrol. And although the jets were Syrian, Putin was responsible. We know this because the U.S. military shares its operating positions in Syria with the Russians so as to prevent accidents. Russia then shares that information with Syria. And, at least in dealing with the U.S., Assad does what Putin wants. Thus, last week’s show of force by his Syrian puppet proves that Putin believes he can now stare down the U.S. military.