Critics sometimes rail at President Barack Obama for devising foreign policy largely on his own, but Obama is a model of consultative comity compared to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Last September, the Russian leader stunned Obama and everyone else by dramatically intervening in Syria’s civil war ostensibly to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) but actually to save embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
This week, Putin just as abruptly announced that Russia was pulling back.
Although Putin didn’t say so, the intervention appears to have accomplished its mission to shore up the Syrian government in the slice of “useful Syria” where most of the remaining population lives.
Putin’s announcement left Obama officials scrambling to explain how their previous warnings that Russia had entered a quagmire in Syria now looked unfounded.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who has invested considerable time developing a relationship with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, announced that he would be flying to Moscow next week to meet with Lavrov and Putin to better understand the Russian game plan going forward.
Good luck with that.
Putin consults a tiny group of advisers, most of them former apparatchiks in the FSB, the post-Soviet KGB, to the extent he talks to anyone before making major decisions. He clearly relishes his ability to surprise both friend and foe. He is likely to do so again.
What will all of this mean for long-suffering Syria, which today enters its sixth year of chaos, for Syria’s neighbors and for a Europe struggling to accommodate millions of refugees?
One optimistic interpretation is that the partial Russian withdrawal will increase pressure on Assad to reach an accommodation with the internationally recognized portion of the Syrian opposition. The Russian announcement came as UN Syria envoy Staffan di Mistura convened a new round of peace talks in Geneva, seeking to building on a tentative two-week period of reduced hostilities that has allowed international agencies to deliver urgently needed supplies to tens of thousands of Syrians.
While Syrian officials continue to insist that Assad is not going anywhere, the opposition is just as adamant that Assad must step down. The opposition argument, shared by the Obama administration, is that Assad cannot remain beyond a transitional phase because he is so directly tied to the deaths of more than a quarter of a million Syrians. Putin could be signaling to Assad that he must engage seriously in negotiations – or at least give the appearance of doing so — and cannot count on Moscow continuing to bail him out indefinitely.
Paul Saunders, an expert on Russia at the Center for the National Interest, a Washington think tank, told this reporter that for Russian leaders, “war is politics by other means and they are now ready to shift their focus to getting the right kind of settlement, so this is far from the end.”
“Russia’s objectives all along were to prevent Assad’s defeat, improve his negotiating position, and maneuver the United States into some kind of dialogue about Syria,” Saunders continued. “Moscow has accomplished all three of these aims to varying degrees. Moreover, the withdrawal will be neither immediate nor complete — meaning that the Kremlin can modulate the timing or even reverse the flow if Assad faces new challenges.”
Russia retains two major footholds in Syria at the Hmeymim air base near Latakia, a Syrian government stronghold, and a naval base at Tartus on the Mediterranean. While some airplanes began withdrawing on Tuesday, it remained unclear how many of the 4,000 Russian troops and 50 combat aircraft would remain. Putin is also leaving behind a powerful air defense system.
Even if the withdrawal is fairly extensive, Assad can still count on support from Iran, Iran’s Lebanese partner Hezbollah and an assortment of pro-government militias assembled by Iran from Shi’ite Muslim fighters coming from as far away as Pakistan and Afghanistan and as close as neighboring Iraq.
American support for opposition forces is minimal in comparison.
Instead, the Obama administration has chosen to focus on ISIS, which still controls a large swathe of territory in eastern Syria.
When Putin intervened last September, he stated at the time that Russia’s intention was also to defeat ISIS. But his forces concentrated on attacking less extreme Sunni Muslim fighters instead.
Saunders said that it was still possible that Putin would now pivot and actually join the coalition against ISIS, which has attracted foreign fighters from Chechnya and other restive Muslim majority Russian territories.
“They may also hope that a negotiated solution would give them an opportunity to play an important part in an international anti-ISIS military campaign using the forces they leave behind,” Saunder said. “From their perspective, this could solidify Russia’s role as an important actor in regional security.”
The Russian bombing campaign also appeared aimed at giving Moscow more leverage over Europe, which imposed sanctions on Russia after Putin seized Crimea and began fomenting rebellion in eastern Ukraine two years ago. The stream of Syrians pouring into Europe has created a crisis for the European Union, but so far the bloc has held firm on Ukraine sanctions.
The Russian interventions in Ukraine and Syria have afforded Moscow a chance to show off new weaponry and the improved prowess of its fighting forces. Domestically, the conflicts have stoked nationalist sentiment and provided a distraction from Russia’s sagging, oil-based economy.
Russians remember all too well, however, their ill-fated war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, which turned into a real quagmire and contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Putin, who has called that collapse the “greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century,” has the savvy to know when to declare victory, even if that declaration may be premature.