I’ve been coming across a lot of interesting takes on Russia pulling out of Syria. There’s the idea that Russia played it smooth and that Putin is savvy as hell. I won’t disagree with that, but to compare how Russia dealt with the Syrian situation to how the US did is absurd. Russia backed Assad instead of some random ill-prepared rebel alliance. We know why the US backed the fractured rebels, but why did Putin back Assad?
First, let’s check out the motivations. Russia got involved with Syria for a few reasons: 1) to prop up a client state and thereby preserve the ability to project influence. 2) wage war on Russian extremist militants. 3) show off new Russian military hardware that’s totally on sale now! 4) to present themselves as a genuine superpower. 5) to reinsert themselves into the world at large after their castigation by the West for the debacle in Ukraine.
Now, basically every one of those was a slam dunk. All the goals were achieved. But five months? Five months doesn’t win a war. Five months is NOTHING. So, you know, why only five months? From Slate:
But over time, the mission’s costs have soared and the benefits have waned. As for costs, the Russian air force ran out of “smart bombs”—munitions that can hit targets with pinpoint accuracy—after the first few days of airstrikes (this is why its jets hit so many civilians and hospitals), and it is now fast running out of dumb bombs as well. In other words, in addition to his many economic and political problems at home, Putin cannot keep this up for much longer.
It’s not just the money drying up. It was genuinely a good time to go. Here’s a few choice quotes from a New York Times article:
“Syria doesn’t have to be a slippery slope,” Mr. Tabler said. “Putin actually demonstrated you could intervene, bomb, put troops on the ground and still get out. They effectively changed the situation on the ground, and kept the regime from collapsing.”
HOWEVER. Right before this, it says:
“He clearly set out to buy time for Assad, and that worked,” said Derek Chollet, a former State Department and White House official in the Obama administration, referring to Mr. Putin. “But he made the situation in Syria demonstratively worse. When you go in without scruples, it’s fairly easy to succeed.”
Which is interesting, but not entirely accurate. The Russians got a peace deal. Sure, they committed some hardcore human rights violations that the US couldn’t have gotten away with, but to say the situation is worse, that is not true. That shit was already really bad and now there’s a tenuous peace.
So here’s we’ve got Russia, with an economy in shambles but with a serious desire to make Russia great again. And they go do their thing in Syria. It sorta works? Yet, everything isn’t exactly peachy in Assad-land.
Russia is leaving. That’s no secret. But, Iran is quietly slinking away too. From the National Interest:
The Israeli report, according to which Iran is withdrawing all of a 2,500-strong fighting force while leaving 700 military advisers in Syria, is consistent with a brief comment by Secretary of State Kerry in a Congressional hearing less than two weeks ago that Iran had withdrawn a “significant number” of its Revolutionary Guard Corps troops from Syria.
And there’s this fascinating tidbit from that Slate article I mentioned before:
Putin’s exasperation with Assad has been clear for a while. After Russian airstrikes allowed Syrian ground forces to recapture Aleppo, a chest-thumping Assad declared that he would now proceed to reconquer all of Syria—until Moscow diplomats slapped him down. Just days ago, when Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem proclaimed that there would be no talk of elections or a political transition in Geneva, Moscow once again told him to pipe down.
Assad may not want to be a client state, but the fact is, there’s no choice in the matter. It’s either get a solution now or slowly fall into the black hole of instability and perpetual revolution (looking at Libya here).
Assad doesn’t really have much of a choice anymore. Putin has put him in a situation that doesn’t have any good outcome except bowing to Russian interests. First, in terms of military, Assad doesn’t really have much to offer. From Foxtrot Alpha:
Although Russia has left Assad in a far better tactical position than before their intervention, strategically he remains very vulnerable with few military cards left to play should the fighting reignite.
This puts Russia in a nearly perfect position to attempt to broker a solution to the conflict on an international stage. Once again, such a solution would be partial to Moscow’s interests—but it could very well include using Assad as a sacrificial pawn.
With this in mind, you can see why Russia agreed to stop its cooperative hammer and anvil operation against Syrian rebels in the battleground metropolis of Aleppo. If they had finished the job, and Assad’s forces took the entire city and continued their hunt for rebel forces with the help of Russian air power, the rebel threat would be almost totally diminished. Without that threat to the Assad regime in place, there would be far less leverage when it comes to pushing Assad to the negotiating table.
All in all, there’s something very interesting going on and it is nothing like what the US wants. The US uses pretend goodwill to try and help countries, which of course, that means the US fakes compassion to get whatever it wants. But the US has to pretend.
The Russian people lay down no such demands of the Russian government. Putin has run on the exact same platform as Trump. Make Russia great again. Well, this is it. Will it fail? Who knows. It certainly might. As the Slate article pointed out, Russia frequently surprised the world, be it Syria, Ukraine, or way back in Afghanistan. But just because it’s a surprise doesn’t mean it actually ends well for Russia.