Once again Putin surprises me, this time putting my predictions of gloom and doom in Syria to rest. No, history did not repeat itself. Yes, Putin seems to have learned something from the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. A massive pullout of Russian forces (namely air power) is underway.
Is Putin just giving up on Assad? I doubt it. Putin is most likely confident in the position he has left for Assad following a potent Russian air campaign and a weary truce. The ongoing talks have been colourful, with the USA backed Kurds recently announcing the formation of an autonomous federal region in northern Syria. Ironically, the USA has not recognized this while Russia, the longtime ally of Assad, has said they are open to such a development.
So what exactly is going on? Is Assad’s regime stable? How will this impact the war on ISIL and the refugee crisis? Will the truce last?
Putin, the eternal pragmatist, most likely wouldn’t pull out unless he felt confident in Assad’s survival. Syria is Russia’s main foothold in the Middle East, providing a much needed naval base, and Putin would not gamble so lightly with such a valuable asset. Russia’s air superiority has given Assad the trump card in the war he needed. Recall that the primary target of Russia’s air strikes was not ISIL but rather Syrian rebels. Americans were disappointed and surprised to see Russia target “freedom fighters,” but but this shouldn’t have really come as a surprise. Terrorism remains a subjective term, and for Russia, which witnessed an ongoing brutal war in Chechnya, rebellion and terrorism are synonymous.
On the subject of Chechnya, I was surprised to hear that the Kremlin backed Ramzan Kadyrov has announced that he will step down. We will see if this holds true…
Anyhow yes I believe that Assad is safe. Putin has taken a special interest in protecting Assad, and Russia has achieved overwhelming successes. Putin’s spontaneity and brilliant maneuvering are to thank here. When the question of whether or not to bomb Syria was on Obama’s mind, Putin swept in and convinced Assad to surrender chemical weapons, thus nullifying any US justifications for intervention. When Assad’s regime was crumbling in civil war, Russia deployed potent air strikes. Russia’s Middle East policy has revealed that the bear has not only awoken from hibernation but is now smarter and stronger than ever. The Obama administration’s foreign policy has gone from trying to destroy Assad’s regime in 2011 to negotiating a truce with Russia and Syria in 2016: quite a turnaround! While I generally approve of Obama’s foreign policy overall, I agree with conservatives that Russia has thoroughly stumped us. Yet again, what can America do? Russia has had and will have a vested military presence in the region. Attempts to criticize the Russian intervention are met with cries of American hypocrisy for having intervened against Iraq. Just like Russia’s foreign policy coup in Ukraine, there is little that America can do here.
But is Syria really that valuable to Putin enough to justify military operations in a time of financial strain? Evidently it was! Putin obviously places a high value on the Russian naval base in Syria (Russia also had a naval base in Crimea with a lease that expired in 2017, so the oft-cited Russian desire for warm-water ports may be a truism after all!). Additionally I believe that both Crimea/Ukraine and Syria provided ample opportunity for Russia to show off its renewed drive to become one of the world’s dominant powers. Russia provides a potent counterpoint to Western/US foreign policy, and by placing safe bets Putin has been able to stymie the West. The fact that Putin’s withdraw surprised people is an indication that Russia, not the USA, holds the initiative. Of course, I think Russia’s ability to press its advantage is short-ranged: Russia can only really project force within its traditional sphere of influence, which means that Crimea and Syria are victories for Russia rather than defeats for the West. Gone are the late 80s and 90s where Russia often acquiesced to territory loss.
Regardless, Putin has performed several foreign policy coups and, at the very least, has several visible triumphs on his belt.
The stabilization of Syria under the Assad regime will likely have little impact on the war against ISIL which continues to be primarily led by US backed regional militias. Syria may have achieved greater territorial integrity but will likely not be able to lend much aid in the fight against ISIL. Russia’s withdraw of military hardware tells me they have no interest in entering combat with ISIL. Russia’s military actions may have created more sympathy for the Syrian rebels, and more suffering that could allow for radicalisation, but while a will may exist the means to mount any further serious defense against Syrian government dominance have been broken.
As for the refugee crisis, the damage is already done. As Assad regains a devastated Syria will likely continue to hemorrhage. The deal between the EU and Turkey may alleviate the crisis (for the West at least), but at a significant cost of EU unity (Turkey remains controversial among EU members for the anti-democratic nature of the Erdogan regime, and dealing with such a regime weakens the values that hold the EU together).
Will the truce hold? Since Putin smashed my expectations of the intervention I am not willing to make more predictions. Kurds, who were excluded from peace talks, are attempting to create a federal structure which, surprisingly, Russia is backing despite having intervened to preserve the Syrian governments sovereignty. Perhaps Russia is trying to force Assad to compromise? Maybe Russia is simply trying to further stabilise Syria at any costs.
Yet again, perhaps Russia has already achieved its goal. US Secretary of State Kerry is back at the negotiating table with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, and this time they are not discussing Russia. The most important thing about the truce is that the US and Russia are talking about and working together towards common international goals. After a brief stint as rogue nation #1, Putin may have managed to force the US into normalizing relations. Having thoroughly dominated Syria, Putin is now sacrificing some influence in the negotiations for the prize of forcing the USA to the negotiating table as an equal. It would be pointless to theorize that this may have been Putin’s original goal; all that matters is that Putin is once again making the best out of the situation.