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.
The Obama administration can be faulted for militarily staying out of the fray but that decision was a calculated one in 2010 when Obama made it. The American population had had more than enough participation in wars of choice in the Mideast, the US had scant interest in Syria particularly in comparison with its neighbors and no clear side to support. Furthermore, American intelligence had concluded that the Assad regime was not long for this world and would likely be succeeded by moderate Sunnis as was happening elsewhere following the Arab Spring at the time.
A look at population statistics which I referenced earlier – albeit questionable ones because they are so dated (1960) - alone buttress the administration’s assessment. Even in 1960 the controlling Alawites represented only 11% of Syria’s total Muslim population (92.1%). The Alawites of which Assad is a member, of course, are a religious sect related to Shia Islam. Whereas the Sunnis represented 75 percent of Syria’s Muslims. Why the Syrian government stopped including religion in the 1960 census and thereafter raises the question as to whether the percentage of Alawites is no larger today than it was then – perhaps smaller.
Nevertheless, Putin still has the naval and air bases at Latakia regardless of what they are called. He has bought time for Assad and at the same time warned him that Russia is not Assad’s unquestioning best friend forever (BFF) and that he had better be prepared to compromise at best but otherwise be prepared to step aside. How different a Syrian government would be without Assad is open to question – it can be argued that he is simply the window-dressing fronting for a tough military regime – so his departure alone would likely not change much unless his chief supporters go too.
Another Kremlin short term propaganda coup?
For the short run, Putin has raised Russia's international profile by supposedly helping to end the conflict thereby providing the Kremlin with yet another short term propaganda coup. Of course, had Putin not supported the intransigent Assad in the first place, the conflict would more likely be over, ISIS might not have achieved a foothold in eastern Syria thereby destroying its cultural heritage and claiming it part of its "caliphate" and Europe would likely not be faced with an enormous refugee crisis – at least in today’s proportions.
Like Ukraine, Putin's actions in Syria have neither been strategic nor are they likely to hold in the long run. In Ukraine, they were a patched together response to Yanukovich's abrupt departure after ordering his troops to fire upon the demonstrators at the Maidan. Nevertheless in good KGB operative fashion Putin much prefers to pull the strings from behind the scene and stir up trouble through surrogates than commiting his own army. Even in Syria, the Russians are battling from on high; not sending in the regulars to fight on the ground. Look at all those little green men in eastern Ukraine who were/are, in reality Russian special forces. It seems to me that his latest “surprise” maneuver in Syria is just another example.