Putin’s penchant for surprises is fast becoming legendary. Six months ago Russia unexpectedly intervened to save Assad’s skin. Now it says, again out of the blue, that it’s leaving. Declaring the mission largely accomplished, Putin said he has “ordered that from tomorrow the main part of our military groups will begin their withdrawal from the Syrian Arab Republic.” What now?
Observers caught unawares have an unfortunate tendency to throw in everything but the kitchen sink. Recall how after the Michigan upset, FiveThirtyEight came up with eight different theories of how they got it so wrong. Many have engaged in similar kitchen-sink theorizing about the Russian intervention. The most common knee-jerk reaction is to resuscitate Cold War tropes. Apparently, Putin’s main goal in life is to impress Western audiences. According to the Economist,
Even keeping Mr Assad in his palace was a secondary consideration. Rather, his first and overriding objective was to reclaim Russia’s lost status as a superpower. He wanted Russia to be seen as America’s peer, and used Syria’s war as a means to that end.
Putin’s assertion that Russia has largely achieved its objectives is revealing. Ostensibly, the main goal of the invention was to fight ISIS. Whatever happened to that? Just like the decision to intervene had almost nothing to do with ISIS, the decision to withdraw has little to do with the achievement of Russian objectives. Instead, the real goal of the Russian withdrawal is to put pressure on Assad.
It seems that Assad got emboldened by recent victories and started back-peddling on promises to accommodate the legitimate opposition. Perhaps he reckoned that with the backing of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, and the tacit support of the Kurds and the United States, he could reestablish government control of the rest of the country. That would’ve been a recipe for a quagmire for Russia. Moreover, that would require that Russia backtrack from its understanding with the United States.
Contrary to the Neo Cold Warriors, the Russian withdrawal is not a PR stunt. Putin is arm-twisting Assad back to the table; doubtless with US encouragement. We don’t know if principals in the Obama administration were really unaware of the decision. Indeed, it might well have been their suggestion!
Then there are those suggesting that Russia’s limited operation exposed a fallacy in the president’s argument: That any military involvement in Syria would inevitably lead to deeper engagement. A moment’s examination reveals that that is utter nonsense. It is meaningless to compare an intervention in support of the state with one meant to topple it.
When a great power intervenes militarily in a weaker state, it can obviously expect to prevail on the field. When it does so in support of the regime, it is the regime that automatically takes charge afterwards. Whereas if it intervenes in favor of the rebellion, there is usually no one credible to take control of country: You break it, you own it.
Allow yourself to be cautiously optimistic. The surprising success of the ceasefire shows that there is considerably appetite for a truce on the ground. With Russia doing its bit to bring Assad around and the Americans showing flexibility on the expiry date on his head, we are getting close to a great power settlement in Syria.
Only those with their visions distorted by dated Cold War frames of reference can miss the emerging congruence of interests and the attendant cooperation evident at the top table.