Russian engagement in Syria is Putin's ultimate power play
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With the annexation of the Crimean peninsula secure and global retaliation reduced to empty rhetoric, Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinButina asks for donations to pay legal expenses Donald Trump, president for life? We need term limits now Gabbard says claim her campaign is getting boost from Putin apologists is 'fake news' MORE has now embarked on his ultimate power play: reshaping the Middle East, beginning with military intervention in Syria. Using the cloak of diplomacy, Putin turned the United Nations General Assembly into his personal theater — unveiling his diabolical plan to back Syrian President Bashar Assad militarily all the while thumbing his nose at the world community and the Obama administration specifically. Using the newly minted nuclear deal as leverage, Putin, along with Iran, is free to embark on regional hegemony throughout the Middle East and Syria is an all-important first step.

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Putin, ever the astute geo-strategic thinker (schemer), adroitly recognized that Assad was losing ground at an accelerated rate to Syrian rebels, despite the unceasing bombings and untold cruelty routinely inflicted on the Syrian people by his forces. Like a hunter lying in wait, the Russian dictator patiently waited and sprung his trap at the General Assembly. Randa Slim, noted expert at the Middle East Institute, recently outlined three primary objectives for Putin's sudden military offensive:

  1. Assist Assad in holding ground.
  2. Maintain political negotiations, thus ensuring that Russia has a seat at the table.
  3. More importantly, demonstrate to the world that Russia stands with its allies, good or bad (a direct shot at President Obama).

Slim goes on to say these objectives are fueled by facts on the ground:

  1. Putin will get away with his incursion into Syria as he is on solid ground legally (he was invited by Assad).
  2. Militarily, recognizing the lack of pushback for Russia's invasion in Crimea, Putin is certain no one will stand up to him. This includes the U.S., Turkey and NATO.
  3. Ultimately, this gamble will pay off. Russia, along with Iran, will be dominant players in reshaping the Middle East.

Many experts believe Russia's invasion of Afghanistan more than 30 years ago portends its latest engagement in Syria. While Russia's inaugural offensive targeted Syrian rebels, Putin will also have to mount an attack against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which will prove challenging. Largely overlooked is the fact that many ISIS fighters are Chechen. Moreover, Putin is making a huge gamble that confronting this brutal enemy on Syrian territory will diminish terror attacks within Russian borders. So far, Russia has been immune to targeted assaults by ISIS (although attacks from Chechen fighters tell a different story), but that is changing. The Russian embassy in Damascus has been attacked and Jabhat al-Nusra leaders have called on jihadists from all over the world to attack Russians.

Despite the plethora of challenges on the horizon in Syria, Russia's engagement in the Middle East serves as Putin's ultimate power play. The Russia-Syria-Iran triumvirate cements its status throughout the region. As evidence, European powers and other nations were lining up to invest in Iran even before the ink dried on the long-awaited Iran nuclear deal. Moreover, Gulf States are experiencing unprecedented growth despite the omnipresent scourge of war and terrorism. All of this allows Russia access to boundless opportunities to stabilize its fragile economy. Perhaps more alarming, Obama giving way to Russia in Syria signals — to emerging nations in the region — that the U.S. is not a partner on which to rely. The loss of allies, standing and influence on the ground will only make it harder for the U.S. to not only build strong, stable and effective coalitions to combat global jihad, but also strengthen ties with trading partners to help shore up a still-recovering U.S. economy. This only emboldens Putin's efforts to remake Russia as the power player not only capable of standing up the U.S., but also beating the world's only remaining superpower.

Strategically, Putin and Assad are getting the outcome they desired from the onset of the brutal civil war in Syria. Assad, with Russia's help, can systemically eliminate the rebel opposition, thereby forcing the international community to choose between the Assad regime and ISIS. Once again, Putin has been able to outmaneuver Western powers, namely the U.S. While there are many challenges and factors that can hinder Russian advancement in Syria, the Russian military offensive guarantees Putin a seat at the table regardless of Assad's future. In fact, should Russia — with the support of Iran — deal a crippling blow to ISIS, it will go a long way toward securing Russia's place in the geopolitical hierarchy. Red lines and J.V. teams have perennially tripped up President Obama; Vladimir Putin, like moves on a chess board, outmaneuvers those same red lines and answers in kind to that very J.V. squad.

Checkmate.

Ham serves as co-chair of the Fragile State Strategy Group. He is author of "S.O.S.: A U.S. Strategy of Statebuilding." Follow him on Twitter @EKH2016.