Putin throws down the gauntlet on Syria. Any takers?

An order to withdraw forces in the middle of an indeterminate war is extremely unusual. But the prerogative lies with the commander-in-chief.

Russian President Vladimir Putin with Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu (R) and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov

Russian President Vladimir Putin with Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu (R) and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov

It is one such moment when Russian President Vladimir Putin made the dramatic announcement in Moscow on Tuesday night that “after fulfilling the primary objectives set before the Russian Armed Forces in the fight against international terrorism, a decision was made to withdraw the main part of the Russian Aerospace Forces troops” from Syria starting from March 15.

Putin left it to Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to flesh out the raison d’etre of his momentous decision. Thereupon, he phoned up his counterpart in Damascus, President Bashar Al-Assad to inform him of the decision. Curiously, the only other foreign leader Putin spoke to was US President Barack Obama.

Putin did not address the Russian people. He is confident of their understanding and support.

To be sure, the controversial decision is about to be pinned down on the dissection board and ‘deconstructed’ in chancelleries the world over. Therefore, it is useful and necessary to hear first from Shoigu and Lavrov. Shoigu claimed that “a significant turning point in the fight against terrorism” has been reached:

  • Russian forces have been able to “significantly hinder and in some places completely stop” the supply routes of the terrorists in Syria, and lethally damage the terrorists’ capacity to produce, process and market fuel to generate income;
  • Terrorists have been “driven out” from Latakia, Assad’s Alawaite power base on the Eastern Mediterranean;
  • Communication has been restored with Aleppo; Homs and Hama provinces are mostly cleared of terrorists; Kweires air base has been “unblocked”; oil and gas fields near Palmyra are brought under control;
  • All in all, 400 towns and over 10,000 sq km of territory were “liberated”; and,
  • Over 2,000 Russian nationals aligned with terrorist groups were eliminated.

Shoigu disclosed that nonetheless Russian assets will remain in Syria to monitor the ceasefire and gather intelligence, “including electronic intelligence and our satellite constellation.”

Lavrov on his part assessed that the Russian operations “helped create conditions for the political process”. He implied that the Russian operations prompted the US (and its regional allies and the Syrian opposition) to show willingness to work on the political process, which has begun, although it still needs to be “sustainable and irreversible”.

After listening to the presentations by Shoigu and Lavrov, Putin noted two main things:

  • One, Russian military operations have been “quite effective”’ and have “created conditions to start the peace process”; and,
  • Two, the objectives of the military intervention in Syria “have generally been fulfilled” insofar as “we were able to radically change” the ground situation as well as “take initiative in nearly all areas to create the conditions for the start of a political process”.

Putin announced that from Tuesday the “main part” of the Russian military contingent will begin withdrawing, while “our base points – our maritime base in Tartus and our aviation base at the Hmeymim airbase – will function as before”.

He underscored that the remaining military assets will “continue to fulfil the highly important function of monitoring the ceasefire and create conditions for the peace process”.

He said that Russian diplomacy will intensify, and that his decision constitutes a “good signal for all conflicting sides” on the top Moscow attaches to the peace process, which in turn might “significantly lift the level of trust” among the parties involved in the peace process.

Quite obviously, this is a carefully thought out decision although it would have taken by surprise Obama and the range of protagonists from King Salman of Saudi Arabia to Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to Turkey’s Recep Erdogan and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu.

Interestingly, the Kremlin decision comes just a week after the highly critical remarks by Obama appeared in a media report mocking at the Russian operations in Syria. In the Obama narrative, Putin hankers for a place at the high table and is bleeding his country’s resources in a futile war. Evidently, Putin has put a hole through that narrative through which an elephant can pass.

The White House readout of the conversation with Putin on Tuesday calls the Russian move “a partial withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria.” Does Obama like Putin’s decision, or does he still think the dumb Kremlin leader is caught in a quagmire? No, he won’t say.

Yet, the Russian move is terrific in its optics, highlighting the desire for a political solution in Syria, while at the same time keeping all options open if the other side chooses to betray confidence and tries to shift the military balance against the regime.

The big question remains: What if the ground situation deteriorates, violence cascades and the refugee flow begins again? Sophistry apart, the West (especially Europe) will need a helping hand from Russia to stem any such tragic slide.

In fact, a multitude of tricky sub-plots linger. Assad’s dependence on Hezbollah only increases. Conversely, Tehran cannot hope to walk away from the war anytime soon. On the other hand, will Turkey and Saudi Arabia feel emboldened now to step up their interference to regain lost ground or embark on direct intervention?

Indeed, the key issue boils down to how far the US is willing to work with Russia to impose a solution in Syria. Putin has thrown down the gauntlet. So far, Obama has been pleased with himself by being a “free rider”. Now the need arises to take responsibility to rein in recalcitrant allies – or, at the very least some shared responsibility.

It is most significant that Lavrov has disclosed only the day before Putin’s announcement of withdrawal of forces from Syria that Moscow has evidence of Turkey’s “creeping expansion” in northern Syria. Lavrov said, “According to our information, they are digging in a few hundred meters from the border inside Syria.”

Now, wouldn’t Lavrov know that Washington and NATO would as well know this, who have deployments in the vicinity on Turkey’s borders with Syria? Wouldn’t Washington know Moscow knows it knows? Who are we kidding in this proxy war? Without doubt, the Russian decision to withdraw forces from the US is intended to persuade Washington to revise its doublespeak.

The bottom line is that one thousand miles away from Syria, the US is confronting Russia (and Putin) in Eurasia and is accelerating its containment strategy. Squaring this circle is not going to be easy – not even for someone of Obama’s ingenuity. As a former US ambassador to NATO Robert Hunter wrote this week,

  • Apparently, the US left hand (Secretary of State John Kerry in the Middle East) and its right hand (the Pentagon in Europe) have not been able to settle on one, coherent, policy toward Russia… It is a supreme irony that the United States is doing virtually nothing to help the European Union deal with a crisis that is the direct descendant of one of the worst foreign policy blunders in US history, the 2003 invasion of Iraq… Like it or not, Europe still needs America and the United States still needs Europe. That includes understanding on both sides of the Atlantic that the Middle East, Europe, and Russia do not exist on three separate planets. They can only be dealt with all of a piece, which is not now being done.

Putin took his decision with the full awareness of a possible return of the Cold War. He has exposed that Washington is standing by passively in the face of the refugee crisis, despite claiming Europe is high on its agenda.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

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