THE BLOG
09/28/2015 12:46 pm ET Updated Sep 28, 2016

An Explainer on Putin's Game of Chess in Syria

Sasha Mordovets via Getty Images

I'm certainly no wizard at chess but I've played the game of strategy enough to appreciate a player that does possess such talents. Before the build up of Russian military hardware and troops in Syria last week, Putin's approach to the Syrian Civil War had taken the form of a political counter-balance, checking Western attempts to upend Bashar al-Assad. Since March 2011, widely considered the start of the uprising in Syria, Russia, along with China, has wielded its right to veto, as one of five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), on four separate occasions.

In an attempt to circumnavigate the UNSC, the U.S identifies Assad as the source of Syria's turmoil, and recognizes the National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, as do the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council. The glaring problem with any political alternative in Syria is the inability to fuse a cohesive, loyal and well-trained security apparatus that could take on and defeat the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra (the AQ affiliate).

Russia, citing the security vacuum in Libya created by the Western-backed deposition of Gaddafi and his regime, maintains that political reform instigated by Assad is the way ahead. The idea being that Damascus doesn't slip into the hands of the Islamic State, whilst simultaneously fuelling a jihadist insurgency on Putin's own backdoor in the North Caucus.

But the reality today for many Syrians is a tormenting life crushed between the indiscriminate barrel bombing of their neighborhoods by the Assad Regime, and the Islamic State's cult-like ideology. And if you ask a Syrian refugee why they are fleeing their homeland, most cite Assad.

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, between January 1 and June 30, 2015, the Syrian Army, local militias and foreign Shiite militias killed 6,928 civilians; the Islamic State, 945.

So there appears to be a gaping flaw in Russia's agenda if, indeed, it is based on promoting the safety and security of the Syrian people. Putin's posturing on his Western flank over the last two years might reveal a renewed desire to protect regional strategic assets, regarded as critical from a military and economic standpoint.

In March 2014, Putin declared in his address at the Grand Kremlin Palace that: "Crimea has always been an integral part of Russia in the hearts and minds of people [sic]."

Annexing Crimea was critical to the security of Sevastopol, home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet, and Gvardeyskoye Air Base, the location of the Black Sea Fleet's Naval Air arm. Both capabilities are fundamental to Putin's ability to project Russian Naval Sea and Air power into the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Russia also has a Naval facility based at the deep-water port of Tartus, on the Syrian Mediterranean coast just North of Lebanon and South of Turkey. Militarily, Tartus can dock nuclear submarines and missile cruisers but not an aircraft carrier. And if Assad's proclamations turn out to be true, the route that Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missiles will have used to get into Syria.

Economically, the port is the point of arrival for all Russian military shipments into Syria, a multi-billion dollar business, and a crucial source of revenue for Putin. In 2012, The Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST) in Moscow played down the importance of Tartus, but that was prior to Putin's land grab of Crimea and a dire economic landscape created by the collapse of oil and Western sanctions.

The recent deployment of Russian Marines, T-90 battle tanks, Surface to Air Missile systems, helicopter gunships, four multi-role SU-30SM Flankers, 12 Su-24 Fencers and 12 air-to-ground Su-25 Frogfoots into the Latakia region in Western Syria, an Assad stronghold, indicate that the Naval facility at Tartus maybe more important than the West might have been led to believe.

Most notably, the presence of advanced multi-role Russian jets in Syria doesn't just provide a close air support capability for Russian or Syrian government forces. If utilized in the air-to-air role, the aircraft also serve as an astute counter-check to any Western plans for a no-fly zone over the North of the Country.

Paralyzing Assad's airpower would have crippled an army that has recently suffered strategic setbacks to jihadists over fiercely contested long-standing battles for airbases in Idlib province and Dier ez-Zor. A no-fly zone may have also offered the Syrian people a much needed rest bite from the systematic indiscriminate use of barrel bombs, launched predominantly from helicopters.

Putin's move has also forced a diplomatic pivot by the U.S Administration. From stern warnings to the Kremlin just a few weeks ago, to initiating military-to-military talks last week, history might just reward the Russian premier with the unlocking of a four and a half year stalemate.

Unlike the contentious interventions of Iraq and Libya, or the U.S-led coalition airstrikes inside another nations sovereign territory without a formal Memorandum of Understanding or Status of Forces Agreement, Russia's presence inside Syria is likely at the invitation of Assad and therefore permissible under International Law. No different to Turkey offering home-basing to U.S jets, or Saudi offering a launch pad for U.S drones.

Like Crimea, Putin appears to have moved fast in Syria. Conveniently, the Russian President's initiative comes at a time when human rights statistics are implicating Assad as the true enemy of the Syrian people.

Drawing the U.S into a ground war with the Islamic State in the Northern Levant, that also helps confront a metastasizing jihadist threat on Putin's own doorstep, in itself would be a coup for Putin. But protecting Tartus and Assad, both critical to Putin's revenue streams, whilst being perceived as the man that broke the status-quo in Syria, well that would be, a perfect game of geo-political chess.