WASHINGTON, ABU DHABI, LONDON, TEL AVIV and MOSCOW — On Monday, US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin will have a formal, in-person meeting for the first time in more than two years.
As Secretary of Defense Ash Carter told reporters on Sept. 24, "the United States believes that these two interests must be pursued in parallel."
"If Moscow is willing to concentrate any military power it wishes to bring to bear exclusively against ISIL, there may be room for coordination with the anti-ISIS coalition," said Frederic Hof, former US special adviser for transition in Syria. "If it elects to help Assad eliminate nationalist Syrian rebels, there could be severe complications in terms of airspace deconfliction."
On the Ground
Less than a month ago, Russia had no major military presence in Syria. But in recent weeks, Putin's government dramatically ramped up its operating footprint.
The first major move was the arrival of equipment, apparently shipped in by An-124 Condor transport aircraft to Latakia airbase. Quickly thereafter, publicly available satellite images picked up Russian Su-24, Su-25 and Su-30 aircraft at Latakia.
Ben Barry, the senior fellow for land warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank in London, said any Russian military action in Syria could employ some of the lessons it learned in the Ukraine in support of separatists fighting the government in Kiev.
"The bases they are setting up gives them the opportunity to use reconnaissance and surveillance systems, fixed-wing air and drones, to improve the effectiveness of the government forces by improving their intelligence and understanding," Barry said.
"Clearly they are in a position to conduct air strikes, and were they to introduce any of their long-range rockets they would be in a position to have some tactical effect. And they can do that without too many boots forward of their big base," he said.
Barry said the new Russian presence gives Moscow the ability to use force in direct support of policy objectives of the Syrian military but "it also complicates the calculations of the US-led coalition as they have to ensure the two forces are deconflicted."
The issue of deconfliction is a very important one, and something that Secretary of State John Kerry alluded to when announcing mil-to-mil talks in mid-September. After all, if Russian planes start flying regularly, there is a high chance they would interact with US or allied jets, raising the risk for both an accident and an incident.
Another major risk for Russia is that a service member may be captured by ISIS, said Theodore Karasik, a senior adviser to Gulf States Analytics.
"The Russian Ministry of Defense and other agencies are going into Syria with a blindfold. Of course, the human tragedy will be paramount, but in this age of hybrid warfare, the infowar will [also] be paramount," he said.
"We need to remember that during the Chechen conflict in the 1990s, gruesome decapitations were the norm, which only angered Moscow even more," Karasik said.
Yury Barmin, a Russian expert on Middle East politics and military issues, said that Russian troops falling into the hands of ISIS would be "a huge blow" to Putin's strategy in Syria.
"Domestically it may also spark protests, since the tragic memories of the Afghanistan campaign in the '80s are still painful for Russians," Barmin said. "But I think that the Kremlin is perfectly aware of this risk, which is why Russian troops will [likely only] be involved to an extent that would allow to avoid being captured by the Islamic State."
In a statement, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) foreign ministers urged a political solution to the Syrian crisis "without any foreign intervention," referring to Russia and Iran.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir called the Russian military moves an "escalation" and reiterated at a recent meeting of the GCC that Syria can have no future while Assad remains in power.
Al-Jubeir added that while Riyadh prefers a political solution, "the military choice is still available, as the Syrian opposition is still fighting the regime with more efficiency with the passing of time".
"For now Putin wants to fight ISIS in Syria but he would not want that to strengthen the Syrian regime nor depose it, however he wants al-Assad to step down but he does not know how or when that should happen," he added.
"Russia is essentially taking some weak or tense relationships and making them worse, if that's even possible," she said.
"The GCC understands that a new Syrian entity carved out under Assad means preserving Iranian interests, which is to have a front in the Mediterranean," he said. "The Iranians have chosen the right great power to be with — the Russians."
He said he expected the GCC to emulate the US example and seek to ensure that the armed opposition groups it backs in Syria did not engage the Russian troops in combat.
The Gulf Arab states will continue to funnel weapons to the opposition groups, he added, but would "not give them with the objective of fighting Russian forces in Syria".
So, what does Russia seek to gain by coming to Syria? Answers vary among geopolitical experts.
SecDef Carter, however, was quick to state that any agreement with Russia on Syrian issues would not coincide with lifting of economic sanctions regarding Ukraine.
"These ongoing discussions on Syria will not in any way take away from our strong condemnation of Russian actions in Ukraine or change our sanctions and security support in response to those destabilizing actions," Carter pledged as Poltorak looked on.
Olga Oliker, director of Rand's Center for Russia and Eurasia, however, believes Russia's behavior in Syria is "at least as much about Syria as it is about Ukraine."
She points to Russia's "real interests in Syria," which includes regional stability — which, to Russia, means keeping Assad in power. Russia, after all, has had issues with militant Islamic groups in the past. She also points out that there are a number of Russians, primarily from the North Caucasus, are now fighting in Syria.
But at the core of Russia's actions, analysts agreed, is Putin's desire to be seen as a world power.
That role would be unquestioned if Putin can somehow force the US' hand to work with Assad in the fight against ISIS.
"Russia is seeking to use the war against ISIS to rehabilitate its Syrian client, Bashar al-Assad," former US special adviser Hof said. "Moscow understands fully the role Assad has played in facilitating the rise of ISIS and sustaining it, particularly with attacks on Syrian civilians."
"Putin sees an opportunity and he's going for it. If he can force the Obama administration into bed with Bashar al-Assad it would be a major diplomatic coup."
John Herbst, former US ambassador to Ukraine and now director of the Atlantic Council's Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, agrees that's the goal. And like Hof, he does not believe that will be successful.
"If he hopes that somehow this will lead to an improved relationship with the U.S. and Europe because they will 'need Russia' in Syria, he will be disappointed," Herbst said. "The West will not appreciate Moscow's strengthening of Assad."
By Aaron Mehta and Joe Gould in Washington, Awad Mustafa in Abu Dhabi, Andrew Chuter in London, Barbara Opall-Rome in Tel Aviv and Matthew Bodner in Moscow.