Anyone focusing on the political scene in the Islamic Republic of Iran would have noticed a mood of barely subdued embarrassment the other day as Russian President Vladimir Putin pulled his “withdrawal from Syria” rabbit out of his bag of tricks.
Neither Tehran nor Damascus knew how to cope with the surprise. The damage limitation that both tried a day later convinced few people. In both cases the state-controlled media had to wait several hours before reporting Putin’s move, and then only in a doctored way. Suddenly, all the talk about a Moscow-Tehran axis acting in unison to destroy “terrorists” in Syria and exclude the United States and its allies from the Middle East appeared as a lot of childish prattle.
However, some of us knew right from the start that Putin had intervened in Syria neither for Assad nor for the ayatollah but exclusively for himself. This is what I wrote in a column published in this newspaper on the 30th of October 2015: “Right now no one could know where the Russian intervention in Syria might end. Entering a war is often easy and getting out always difficult. If the mood music from Moscow is to be trusted, the Russian objective is to prevent the fall of the beleaguered President Bashar Al-Assad. Regardless of whether or not that objective is achievable, Assad would do well not to bank on such speculations.”
The rest of the column was devoted to examples of Russian treachery in dealing with allies whom Moscow “saved” or even imposed and then simply jettisoned. The list of ditched allies included Communist Afghan leaders such as Hafizaullah Amin, Babrak Karmal and Muhammad Najibullah, not to mention Kirgiz presidents Askar Aqayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Need one also include Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovitch, who was also propped up by Moscow before being ordered to escape at night?
Putin stated a number of objectives for his high profile intervention in Syria. His entourage claims that when the sent the Russian Air Force to carpet-bomb Aleppo, Assad was on the verge of collapse. Thus, preventing Assad’s collapse was cited as one objective.
However, we know that, at the time, Assad was not on the verge of collapse. Ensconced in his Damascene enclave, he could not regain any lost territory while his enemies were unable to capture his last redoubt.
Putin’s intervention did not give Assad life-long insurance; a fact reflected in recent Russian statements that they are not necessarily committed to prolonging his rule. On Tuesday, Alexander Bortnikov, Russia’s Federal Security chief, insisted that Moscow’s intervention was not aimed at propping up Assad but at “fighting terrorism”.
Putin and his entourage have often cited “the defeat and destruction of terrorism” in Syria as an objective. But, that, too, has not been achieved.
In fact, Russia hardly took any action against the Islamic Caliphate or ISIS, the principal terrorist force in Syria today, which has retained almost all of its Syrian possessions, suffering losses only in Iraq.
On Tuesday, Russian Deputy Defence Minister Nikolai Panov admitted that it was “far too early to speak of victory over terrorism.” Russia has carried out exceptionally savage bombing raids against other anti-Assad armed groups, including those that are supposed to take part in a process of negotiations. But on that score, too, Russia has merely dented the position of Jibhat Al-Nusra, Ahrar Al-Shaam and the more than two dozen other armed groups that have turned Syria into a patchwork of autonomous “emirates”.
When it became clear that the big objectives couldn’t be achieved with empty boasts, Russia, and to some extent the Islamic Republic in Iran, downgraded their ambitions by declaring that all they wanted now was to seize control of the roads between Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city, and the Turkish border.
But, despite heavy losses by Assad and his Arab backers who lost at least 134 senior officers in the forlorn hope of a tactical victory, even that objective was not achieved. The combined forces of Russia, Iran, Assad and the Lebanese Hezbollah ended up gaining control of three villages on the road to the border.
Russia’s fourth objective, albeit stated sotto voce, was to transform its mooring rights in Tartus, a Syrian port on the Mediterranean, into a permanent aeronaval base. Putin has failed to achieve that objective, too. The reason is that a base constantly exposed to attacks from its hinterland is of little strategic use. In the context of a major war, presumably involving NATO powers, the Russian navy would have to negotiate several choke points on its way from the Sea of Azov and Crimea on the Black Sea to the Aegean Sea before entering the Mediterranean and touching on Tartus. In the context of asymmetric wars, presumably involving hostile forces based locally, Tartus might be hard put to protect itself, let alone pose as a master piece on any strategic chessboard.
In other words, Putin has failed to achieve any of the three objectives he stated when he sent his air force to turn parts of Syria into heaps of rubble reminding one of Grozny or Kabul after Russian bombardments. In the process he has killed thousands of Syrian civilians and driven over 100,000 others out of their homes.
Russia itself has suffered significant losses, including at least 700 dead, among them all passengers and crew of a jetliner brought down by ISIS terrorists. Hundreds more have been injured, some seriously.
Putin’s intervention has produced no tangible advantages for Russia or anyone else on the ground.
But what about intangible advantages that Putin’s policy may have procured for Russia? On that score the jury is out. Putin’s intervention has certainly helped consign the Crimean episode to the oblivion, at least for the time being. Thanks to the art of changing the headlines, world public opinion has all but forgotten about tricks that Russia is playing against Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity. Nor does anyone recall that Russia continues to occupy 25 per cent of Georgia’s territory.
The Syrian episode has also helped Putin promote himself as a strong leader prepared to protect Russia’s allies in contrast to the weakling Barack Obama who specializes in stabbing America’s allies in the back. Another unstated objective of the intervention may have been Putin’s desire to slow down if not totally stop Tehran’s march towards normalization with the United States in the wake of the so-called nuclear deal.
Putin’s Syrian move allowed the Iranian “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei to market his ”Looking East” strategy in opposition to the pro-American trend promoted by the rival Rafsanjani faction. In the context of Syria itself, Putin’s intervention may have had another unstated objective: to renew direct contact with the Syrian military at middle and higher levels.
Most Syrian military chiefs were trained in the former Soviet Union but had lost contact with Moscow since the fall of the USSR. The past six months gave Russia an opportunity to renew contact and thus gain an important voice in deciding the future shape of Syria, when and if the broken nation is put together again.
Putin has failed in achieving his stated objectives in Syria. But he may have achieved at least some of his unstated objectives.