What is Putin playing at in Syria?

The world was stunned when Putin stepped in to “save the day” for Barack Obama when the latter refused to intervene over his own red lines being crossed by Syria’s Bashar Assad as he gassed his own people. Everyone was worried what Putin’s aims were, how or whether they would be fulfilled, and what was his end game.

Russian troop positions in Syria last year

And now the world is stunned again as Putin announced a few days, with no prior warning, that he was withdrawing his planes from Syria:

Russia’s Defense Ministry said Tuesday that the first group of warplanes stationed at the Russian air base in Syria has left for home following a pullout order from President Vladimir Putin.

The development came as U.N.-brokered Syria peace talks between Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government and the opposition were to resume for a second day in Geneva.

Putin announced the withdrawal of most of the Russian forces from Syria on Monday night, timing his move to coincide with the resumption of the talks in Geneva.

It’s not a total pullout as some troops and planes will remain in Syria to protect Russia’s bases there – bases which they consider vital to their interests:

The head of the defense committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament, Viktor Ozerov, said Tuesday that he estimated about 1,000 Russian military personnel would remain in Syria at the two bases, the Interfax news agency reported.

Ozerov said Russia would need a minimum of two battalions, a total of 800 troops, to protect the two bases. In addition, Russia would continue to conduct air reconnaissance, requiring some of the plane crews to remain, and the military specialists advising the Syrian army would also stay, he said.

Russian planes spotted in Syria

He said Russia would keep its long-range S-400 air defense missiles at the base. Russia deployed the powerful system in November after Turkey downed a Russian jet along the Syrian border.

The West was taken by surprise at Putin’s decision and there was much consternation in deciphering his motives, while Assad put on a brave face about the decision:

Western diplomats speculated that Putin may be trying to press Assad into accepting a political settlement to the war, which has killed 250,000 people since March 15, 2011.

The anti-Assad opposition expressed bafflement at the Russian announcement, with a spokesman saying, “Nobody knows what is in Putin’s mind.”

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington was encouraged by Putin’s announcement but that it was too early to say what it means, whether he will carry it out and what may have motivated it.

Putin said at the Kremlin meeting that he was ordering the withdrawal from Tuesday of “the main part of our military contingent” from the country.

“The effective work of our military created the conditions for the start of the peace process,” he said. “I believe that the task put before the Defense Ministry and Russian armed forces has, on the whole, been fulfilled.”

With the participation of the Russian military, Syrian armed forces “have been able to achieve a fundamental turnaround in the fight against international terrorism,” he added.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that while Putin called the Syrian president to inform him of the decision, the two leaders had not discussed Assad’s future, the biggest obstacle to reaching a peace agreement.

In Damascus, the Syrian presidency issued a statement saying “The whole subject happened in complete coordination between the Russian and Syrian sides, and is a step that was carefully and accurately studied for some time.”

The answer to Putin’s decision might lay in the motives for his decision to intervene in Russia in the first place. Was Obama’s cowardice a prime mover for the invasion of Ukraine? And did Russia then use the Western sanctions on it as an excuse to ramp up their bombings in Syria?

Julia Ioffe at the Atlantic says that both Obama and Russia reject this reasoning out of hand:

Since the summer of 2013, when President Obama walked up to the red line over the use of chemical weapons in Syria and then pivoted away from it, it’s become something of a truism among Washington hawks that this bit of cowardice paved the way for Russia’s Vladimir Putin to take Crimea and invade eastern Ukraine some six months later. “When President Obama declared Friday that ‘there will be costs’ for any Russian intervention in Ukraine,” Marc Thiessen, the former George W. Bush speechwriter and American Enterprise Institute fellow, wrote in 2014, “you could hear the laughter emanating from the Kremlin—followed by the sound of Russian military vehicles roaring into Crimea and seizing control of the peninsula. ‘Costs?’ Vladimir Putin must have thought. Just like the ‘costs’ Obama imposed on the Assad regime in Syria?”

Obama rejected the linkage between his non-action and Putin’s military adventurism – but of course he would: Nothing is ever Obama’s fault according to the Obama Doctrine.

But what about the Russians? They are taken aback – or at least put on a good show – at the very suggestion:

“Wow, it’s kind of a revelation what you just said,” said a very surprised source from the Russian Foreign Ministry, who was not authorized to speak on the record, on hearing the question. “It’s not tied to any kind of reality. These things are not connected to each other in any way.”

“It is absolutely made up,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, the equally surprised editor of Russia in Global Affairs, who has a reputation for channeling the Kremlin view. “You shouldn’t think of Putin as such a primitive guy. It’s totally clear that the Syrian and Ukrainian crises had nothing to do with one another.” For Lukyanov, it’s almost insulting to suggest a connection. “Technically, it was possible then for Obama to hit Syria and destroy Damascus,” Lukyanov said. “Then Syria would have been yet another government that would’ve paid for doing something wrong. But Russia is a nuclear superpower, and this kind of rationale vis-a-vis Russia is senseless.”

That is, Russia sees itself as a power on par with America, and simply doesn’t group itself with a minor regional power like Syria. Even if Bashar al-Assad had been punished militarily for using chemical weapons, Putin wouldn’t have drawn the conclusion that he could be similarly punished for actions in Ukraine. Syria is Syria, and Russia is Russia, and you don’t punish nuclear superpowers. “In Moscow, they understood clearly what Obama now says openly,” said Lukyanov of what Obama told Goldberg—that Ukraine is not a NATO country and is always going to be subject to Russian meddling, regardless of what Washington does. “There are no obligations in the West and the United States to defend Ukraine,” he said. “Risking war with a nuclear superpower over Ukraine was just not going to happen. It would’ve been clear even if Obama had hit Syria. It wouldn’t have changed anything.”

The Atlantic article goes on to analyze Putin’s actions in Ukraine, but concludes with a very interesting point – how the Russians read Obama’s character so accurately:

Another interesting point: By the summer of 2013, Obama had already been president for four and a half years, and no one in the Kremlin had any illusions about how he saw the world. His decision in Syria was not exactly shocking or out of character for the Russians, especially after the hesitation he showed in Libya. “For Putin to understand that it’s not Bush and not Reagan, you didn’t need to wait for Syria to happen,” said Lukyanov. “To see that Obama is a totally different type of leader, that he’s different from Bush and Reagan and Clinton, you didn’t need to wait for Syria. It was apparent from the beginning.”

Meanwhile veteran journalist Tim Marshall is not surprised at any of these developments. He says Putin told us all along what he planned to do:

What’s so confusing?  Last year when President Putin said he was going to take military action in Syria he was quite clear about his intentions – he said the engagement would “be limited in time”. He said “We will support the Syrian army exclusively in its legitimate fight against terrorist groups”:  He said ‘Support will be provided from the air without taking part in ground operations,”.

Kuryer argued that Putin’s intention was to pursue a limited engagement, committing minimal resources, allowing Moscow to test its new military kit, win new arms contracts, and re-establish itself as a power in the Middle East.  Sound familiar? It’s exactly what has happened.

The W&Y also argued, but with less detail, that this was Putin’s intention. On numerous occasions we described the Putin plan as ‘The Ikea option’ insofar as if you looked at the amount of kit committed it could be ‘flat packed and moved out in a week’.  Of course this was an exaggeration, but the point made was that this was not Putin’s Afghanistan.

So, why draw down now?  And in fact is he drawing down?

Timing is everything.  Putin has bombed his way to getting Assad a place at the negotiating table. And this week is the week the Syrian peace talks resume in Geneva. By signaling (again) that support is not open ended, Putin has given a hint that Assad needs to compromise (we shall discover in time the degree to which that is so), and he’s also (again) played the sober statesman.  We’ve argued all along that he will tie this to trying to get the Ukraine related sanctions against Russia lifted, and this is still the case. Any deal which emerges (and that remains doubtful in the near future) will entail having a leader in Damascus who is not hostile to Russia, and who will agree they can keep their port and air facilities in the country.

And now we come to the vital question: Is it good for the Jews or bad?

Via Honest Reporting, Yossi Melman at the Jerusalem Post explains:

As for Israel, the Russian decision is both a blessing and curse. On the one hand, Israel gets back its freedom to maneuver militarily, which it exercised almost completely before Moscow entered the fray. It will no longer have to coordinate its aerial activity in the skies above Syria with the Russians, nor will it need to clench its teeth in frustration as Russian fighter jets penetrate Israeli airspace over the Golan Heights.

On the other hand, Israel’s regained freedom to act could come up against Iran’s re-established position of dominance on the Syrian front.

This, of course, assumes that the Russian decision is final – even if the withdrawal takes weeks to fully implement – and that there is no ruse behind it that would shock the world.

With all this in mind it is both very interesting and very encouraging that the first visitor to Russia after Putin’s withdrawal announcement was Israeli President Reuven Rivlin who pointedly informed Putin of Israel’s red lines in Syria :

Israel will not allow Iran and Hezbollah to establish a foothold on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, President Reuven Rivlin told his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin Wednesday night at a meeting in Moscow.

President Reuven Rivlin meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow

According to Channel 2 news, the Israeli head of state conveyed the message from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the presence of such Israeli enemies along the chaotic Syrian border was a red line for the Jewish state.

Rivlin also reportedly told Putin Israel was interested in United Nations peacekeepers resuming their mission along the border between the nations, which was largely abandoned as the Syrian civil war spiraled out of control.

The two also discussed Russia’s troop pullout from Syria and continued coordination between Jerusalem and Moscow regarding military activities along the Syrian front.

The meeting was described as a positive one.

“Russia’s interests in Syria are clear to us,” an unnamed top Israeli official told Haaretz. “President Putin spoke of his wishes and plans clearly and president Rivlin will pass them on to the prime minister.”

I’m sure it was no coincidence that Rivlin politely reminded the Russians of the countries’ shared history:

“The ties between our countries are based on friendship and mutual understanding,” Putin said. “We spoke on a variety of issues during our meeting, and we also spoke by phone with the prime minister and agreed to revisit these topics again.”

Putin noted Israel’s sizable Russian minority, and hailed the growing tourism between the two countries.

In his remarks, Rivlin told Putin the Jews would never forget how Russia saved them in World War II, adding that “many Holocaust survivors all over the world remember being liberated by the Red Army.”

“Today, we also both face terror and fundamentalism,” Rivlin said, and urged greater bilateral cooperation between the two countries in various areas.

These warm words would have been unthinkable 30 years ago. How times have changed. And now the cards have all been thrown up in the air again.

Never a dull moment in the Middle East.

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9 Responses to What is Putin playing at in Syria?

  1. Earl says:

    Tim Marshall nails it cold. It also exactly coincides with my thinking since Q1/15- Putin’s NKVD/Cold War background (his mentor was Yuri Andropov), along with his brilliant strategic capability (he took the entire CIA, NSA, Pentagon and its Sixth Fleet ACG totally asleep), coupled with the utter ineptitude of Western political “leadership” resulted in: Russia securing now-impregnable Med bases (air and naval) and a pliable MENA local puppet regime in al-Assad. Plus, he was able to demonstrate to prospective customers the capabilities of Russian military hardware, and unload a quantity of obsolete Warsaw Pact ordinance.

    Game, set and match to Tsar Vladimir.

    As for “Good for the Jews?”, I reckon yes. Putin is a nationalist, and there is no way he’s going to forsake the ~600K Russians living in IL. Quite apart from the massive technical and military and intel capabilities the Izzies have on offer.

    • anneinpt says:

      I tend to agree with you Earl. At least for the moment. The situation is so volatile though that I hesitate to commit myself to anything more definite.

      Let’s just hope that Iran doesn’t see this withdrawal as an opportunity to butt in. Even if they get their behinds kicked hard, they could cause an awful lot of damage to us before they retreat.

      • Earl says:

        Won’t happen. No way will Putin permit a mahdaviat build-up on Russia’s southern flank- and certainly not one approaching nuclear capability. Watch the S-400 sales, watch whether the IRG is emboldened in east Syria and Lebanon. Putin now controls the eastern Med (barring IL), and he has every reason to secure Ruyssian interests through an entente with the Izzies.

        • anneinpt says:

          As long as Russia’s withdrawal is only partial, as long as they keep a hold on their Med seaport – which after all was the entire point of the exercise – and retain some air power (which it looks like they will) then I guess you have a good point.

    • Earl says:

      And on reflection on my post, just look at the chancers and no-hopers Putin faces in the G8/EU/NATO: a PPE PR hack; a community organizer; an inheritor failed drama teacher; a drunken ex-mayor of Luxembourg (WTF is Luxembourg, anyway???); a communist chemist nutter; and an oleaginous, charmless Gaullic Lothario. What a shambolic display of “leadership” by the West. (Only somewhat) facaetiously, I’m surprised that Putin has not invaded Europe for something to do…

      In contrast, Putin calls Bibi up to Moscow for a meeting, and he gets to talk mano-a-mano to a smart guy with military experience and a retinue of smart Izzies.

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