By Patricia H Kushlis
I know it may be hard to believe after reading multiple media reports about Putin’s latest “surprise pull out from Syria” but the Kremlin did not, repeat, not, really pull its military out of Syria last week. The Russian Air Force is still flying bombing missions against ISIS in Palmyra. The Russian Navy has not pulled up anchor or set sail from its facilities at Latakia, euphemistically designated by the Russians as a Material-Technical Support Point and not a “military base,” and the Russian Air Force has not disappeared from Hmeymim, its airbase at Latakia, as Dmitry Gorenburg and Michael Kofman pointed out in a March 18 analysis in “War on the Rocks.”
What did happen was that Vladimir Putin sent some fighter jets home from the Latakia region north of Damascus, apparently pushed the pause button on the bombing campaign against non-ISIS insurgents in and near Aleppo in advance of the latest round of negotiations but kept the attacks on full-throttle elsewhere.
Most significantly, Putin also held a distinctly highly visible Hitlerian/Stalinist style propaganda ceremony in the Kremlin in which he awarded medals to the Russian military all the while claiming Mission Accomplished or more likely Mission Nearly Accomplished to those assembled including and most particularly the media.
Always with the threat of return left on the table if the Assad regime becomes in danger of capitulation yet again.
Given the demoralization of Assad’s troops and the fact that they do not control most of the country or represent most of the population (the most recent statistics – 1960 was the last time Syrian population statistics were recorded by religion – indicate that only 11% of the majority Muslim population was Alawite), this is not out of the question. Unless, that is, the US and the UN can help the Putin government impose a face-saving way out that leaves the Alawites and other minorities in some sort of control over the small parts of the country that they call home and exempts them from a potential militant-led Sunni blood bath.
Chances are, however, if such an agreement were to transpire it would not involve anything more than a veneer of Alawite control over the rest of a fragmenting country. The choice at best is a loose federal state or at worst a Yugoslavia-style break-up of seismic proportions that negatively impact the rest of the neighborhood.
So what were Putin's motives?
To send a message to Assad that the Kremlin had other fish to fry as opposed to mindlessly propping up a recalcitrant uncompromising failed regime because the Russian military “had its back?”
To send a message to Ankara that the Syrian Kurds - especially the PKK which would have had relations with the Russians when the country was the Soviet Union - had powerful anti-Turkish friends so not to mess with them as they consolidate power in the provinces closest to the Turkish border?
To telegraph to the West that Moscow still had enough military power to protect its interests beyond Eastern Ukraine and most importantly still longs to be treated as a "Great Power"?
To give the Russian military a testing ground for its newest toys and simultaneously show the rest of the world that Russia is back in the military hardware sales game? After all with oil prices scraping the bottom of the barrel and the economic sanctions still on, the Russian economy is in trouble and foreign military sales could help the coffers – at least a bit.
Most likely all of the above.
The Syrian Civil War has now entered its sixth year. Not much has been accomplished - aside from keeping the Assad regime in power and in control of a slice of the country near the Mediterranean, all the while forcing half the population into what seems to be becoming permanent exile thereby impoverishing most Syrians, destroying the country’s economic viability all the while placing a tremendous burden on its neighbors, the Europeans and the international donor community.
Then there’s the added “achievement” of providing a breeding ground and safe-haven for Sunni militants from Iraq and elsewhere as well as allowing Kurdish nationalists in the north to extend control over ever more territory forming, in effect, an internationally unrecognized Kurdish buffer state along the Turkish border.
By the way, please don’t show me one more article claiming that Russia and Turkey have a long standing friendship which is just now fraying because of Syria. That’s just specious: these two neighbors have been at each others throats – fighting over the same territory - for the better part of several centuries.