Vladimir Putin is withdrawing Russian military forces from Syria. At least, that’s the spin. What Putin is actually doing is withdrawing some of his forces — bomber-aircraft squadrons, for example — while retaining his military infrastructure (air bases, port facilities, etc.) in Syria. This allows the Russian leader both a pretense of diplomacy and retention of significant military power: gun-based power that equals political power. Putin understands that Western intelligence services know that, within a matter of days, he could re-flood Syria with Russian forces.
Still, the rationale for this military withdrawal centers on two deeper understandings. For a start, now that Russia has achieved its primary military objective and consolidated Bashar al-Assad’s regime in western Syria, it can withdraw forces without significant risk. Second, by withdrawing now, Russia has thrown a diplomatic olive branch to the West. The U.S. and EU know that the olives on the branch are sour, but at this point they no longer care. And that’s the critical point here: Putin’s starvation strategy — as I outlined last month — has succeeded. Threatening massive escalation unless his adversaries yielded, Putin took a stranglehold over the strategic initiative in Syria. Specifically, he deterred Saudi and Turkish escalation against Assad, and de-coupled the Obama administration from the Free Syrian Army–aligned moderate-Sunni rebels. The EU’s concern in Syria is now very simple: countering ISIS and mitigating refugee flows into Europe.
With Geneva peace talks again underway, Putin is now confident that the time is ripe to set the parameters of any peace deal. He’s very likely correct. In the coming weeks we should expect Russian platitudes of support for a transition away from Assad — and then, enter the technicalities. First, a timeline for Assad’s transition that reaches into years rather than months. Second, a clarification that Syria’s future government will oppose “terrorism.” This second point translates: “Accept a Russian veto over the Syrian political process.” For the international community, however, the problem with this compromise is that it will mean the continued disenfranchisement of Syria’s Sunni population. That’s because Assad isn’t simply an adversary to peace in and of himself, he’s an adversary because of what he represents: Alawite persecution of Syria’s Sunni majority. Correspondingly, if Assad is replaced by a proxy from his Alawite political circle — as Russia is likely to demand — Syrian Sunni extremist groups including ISIS will benefit from the boiling demographic of furious Sunni men. That will leave the long-term drivers of the Syrian conflict — and ISIS — unresolved.
#share#Nevertheless, this isn’t just about Syria. Not by a long shot. That’s because what Putin is actually doing here is usurping American influence in the Middle East. Indeed, the reason Putin is now willing to entertain Assad’s eventual removal from power takes root in mercantilism. After all, knowing he will retain influence in Syria for the aforementioned reasons, Putin has likely offered the Sunni Arab monarchies — led by Saudi Arabia — a deal, something along the lines of “In return for Assad’s removal, you agree to buy Russian military equipment.” For reasons of pride, sectarian interests, and moral anger, the Sunni monarchies are desperate for Assad’s removal. And recognizing that the Gulf monarchies now fundamentally mistrust President Obama because of the Iran nuclear deal and his strategic unreliability (“red-lines” . . . ), Putin is offering the Saudis an old-school realist settlement of arms purchases in exchange for Assad’s removal.
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To be sure, the Saudis don’t like this deal, but they probably believe they have no other choice. And while Putin has performed a strategic master class here, President Obama’s ineptitude is also to blame. After all, just this week, President Obama openly told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that he dislikes U.S. allies. The juxtaposition for the Sunni monarchies thus becomes clear: Where Obama offers unreliability and insults, Putin offers influence in return for fealty and gold. Realpolitik 101.
And that underlines the final question: Is this withdrawal a reflection of Russian geopolitical weakness or strength? Many in the Western media — Max Fisher of Vox, for example — claim that Russia’s economic weakness partly motivated Putin’s withdrawal. Thus, they assert, President Obama’s patience policy is vindicated and critics of his strategy have been left embarrassed. But they’re delusional. Because this path makes a mercantilist Russia master of a region descending into nuclear-fueled sectarian paranoia — and mercantilism is the winner in a sea of sectarian paranoia.
#related#Yet beyond its littered dead, the true tragedy here is the lost opportunity of diplomacy. Aligning the Turks and Sunni monarchies against Russian aggression, President Obama could have seized the strategic initiative toward genuine peace. He could have extracted Putin’s concessions on Sunni representation in a future Syrian government (draining the source of the conflict), in return for retaining his military facilities at Latakia and Tartus. That would meet Russia’s need for geopolitical influence while addressing the political roots of the Syrian civil war. Put another way, it would have been successful realist diplomacy.
But realism has long been absent from the White House. Instead, President Obama continues to lead America into the strategic wilderness.