"What if the US acquiesces to Russia's involvement in Syria in exchange for its withdrawal from Ukraine?"
I asked this question several weeks ago to a friend working for the Defense Ministry of a NATO member country. Hoping to sponge up some of his expertise, I asked if he thought Putin would consider withdrawing from Ukraine (and possibly Georgia) in exchange for the US and NATO handing him free-reign in Syria.
I also asked if he thought the US had any leverage, considering how weak its position in Syria had become. He thought the idea of a quid pro quo had merit, and even considered the US to have more leverage than Russia in the situation.
"Russia wants the war to end as much as the US does", he said, and reminded me that the US was still the world's leading military and economic power. That counted for a lot.
Now in mid-October, it looks like that scenario is unfolding, albeit without an agreement between Putin and Obama. Russia's intervention in Syria has befuddled Western leaders, most of all the United States, which has no plan for countering Russian influence in the region.
Putin is building a belt, along with Assad, Iran and Iraq, of Middle Eastern actors bent on crushing Sunni extremism. Russian planes have bombed American-trained rebels. Iran has reportedly sent hundreds of soldiers to bolster the government and continues to finance Hezbollah, a pro-Assad, anti-Israel militant Islamist group.
While the US and its NATO allies (namely France) continue to carry out air strikes against ISIS in Syria, it hasn't taken any action to counterbalance Russia's bolstering of the regime. No dialing-up of support for rebels, and no imposition of a no-fly zone (the latter being something which could potentially provoke a stand-off with Russia).
Most embarrassing for the US, on 11 October Saudi Defense Minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited Moscow, apparently to discuss conditions under which it would accept Assad's retaining power.
All indications are that the Obama administration is washing its hands of the Syrian catastrophe.
In a recent interview with 60 Minutes, President Obama, rather than articulating an engagement strategy for countering the Kremlin's influence in the region, framed the issue as one of Russian imperial overreach:
"I got to tell you, if you think that running your economy into the ground and having to send troops in order to prop up your only ally is leadership, then we’ve got a different definition of leadership."
But as Russia seizes the initiative as the most assertive external power in the Middle East, it is quietly withdrawing from Ukraine.
The Minsk II agreement appears to be finally holding. Signed in February but reset on 1 September to mark the beginning of the school year, fighting has almost entirely ceased in Eastern Ukraine. Interfax-Ukraine news agency reported that separatist forces would withdraw heavy weapons from the front lines on 21 October.
Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko expressed optimism, telling reporters that "the ceasefire is holding exemplary along the frontline." Fighting has not altogether ceased, but it is at a much lower intensity than at any time since the war began in June 2014.
The holding of Minsk II doesn't mean that Russia will stop putting pressure on Ukraine. Rather, it looks like the situation is retreating from open war and entering into a political phase. Many analysts, including Jean-Marie Guehenno of the International Crisis Group, speculate that Russia will resort to funding separatist political movements, making things difficult for Kiev without using direct military force.
Such a policy would be an easing back on the military throttle, but it could also be a mirror of Russia's policy's toward Georgia. Providing military support for separatists, then shifting to political/economic support once the war ends, then using its resources and proximity to effect de facto annexation over the years and decades.
What is clear, however, is that the war in Ukraine has not gone as well as Putin hoped. Syria may prove more successful, but Putin's power play there will inevitably sap more of the country's dwindling economic resources. Russia simply doesn't have the firepower to fight two protracted foreign wars.