Vladimir Putin Plunges Into a Caldron in Syria: Saving Assad

After two days of attacks directed exclusively against insurgents opposed to the Syrian government, there is little question that Russia is determined to re-establish President Bashar al-Assad as Syria’s leader.

“Russia’s goal is to defend Assad; whoever is against him is a destabilizing factor,” said Aleksei Makarkin, the deputy head of the Center for Political Technologies, in Moscow. “Russia wants Assad to get engaged in a political settlement from a position of strength.”

Yet to restore Mr. Assad to full control of Syria or, for that matter, to stitch Syria back together without putting troops on the ground, PresidentVladimir V. Putin of Russia will have to accomplish what no other outside power has dared attempt.Mr. Putin can achieve a number of short-term goals. By inserting Russian military forces directly into the Syrian battlefield he can seize the initiative from Mr. Assad’s opponents and severely limit the options of the United States and its allies, not to speak of embarrassing President Obama — always a consideration for Mr. Putin.

But the glow of early Russian successes will almost certainly fade, analysts and opposition commanders say, as the realities of Syria’s grim, four-year civil war slowly assert themselves. Mr. Assad’s forces are worn down and demoralized, and they are in control of only about 20 percent of Syria’s territory. Mr. Assad himself is vilified by many in the majority Sunni population as his forces use barrel bombs and other indiscriminate weapons against an insurgency that began with political protests.

This past summer the Syrian Army lost ground to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, in the east and to a rival insurgent coalition, the Army of Conquest, in the northwest. Mr. Assad even went on television to declare that the army was facing a manpower shortage. People from government-held areas and draft-age men were increasingly joining the accelerating flow of refugees heading for Europe and elsewhere.

In a country that is 80 percent Sunni, he was also relying increasingly on Shiite fighters from Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia group, injecting a sectarian edge into an already vicious conflict.

At the same time, as the Islamic State moved toward Homs and Damascus from the east, rival insurgents were putting new pressure on the Syrian coastal provinces, where Mr. Assad’s support is strongest. The fighters advancing on that front were not from the Islamic State but from the Army of Conquest, a group that includes an affiliate of Al Qaeda known as the Nusra Front and other Islamist groups, including several more secular groups that have been covertly armed and trained by the United States.

By striking at the territory of that group and others opposed to both Mr. Assad and the Islamic State, Russia takes pressure off Mr. Assad and Hezbollah and shifts the ebb and flow in the war’s stalemate back in their favor.

Lebanese news media even reported Thursday that Hezbollah could soon be participating in a major ground attack in northern Syria, suggesting there were plans for an assault to roll back some insurgent gains. There were also unconfirmed reports that new Iranian troops were entering Syria.

But history suggests that it will be hard for Russia to bring about a purely military resolution. The United States, with tens of thousands of troops and virtually unlimited firepower, could not subdue insurgents in Iraq or Afghanistan. And with airstrikes alone, the American-led coalition against the Islamic State has made little headway.

Russia remembers its own disastrous battle with Islamist insurgents — American-backed groups that over time spawned Al Qaeda — in the 1980s in Afghanistan.