What's Putin Up To in Syria?

Why are the Russians flying many of their warplanes out of Syria? Are they short of cash? Do they need the planes for some other nefarious scheme, or is this some sort of deception? After all, they are maintaining both an air base and a military port in Syria, so perhaps they are just changing tactics -- a hypothesis supported by the recent arrival of attack helicopters.

The Russian move seems to have surprised most everyone, including their Iranian partners. This is a big deal, because the Russians’ invasion of Syria was in response to an Iranian request for help.

The Iranians are committed to saving the Assad regime, have sent thousands of fighters and lots of weapons to shore him up, and have lost many officers and foot soldiers fighting on his behalf, but they failed to stabilize him. Indeed, they were losing.

So last summer, General Qassem Suleimani, commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, personally flew to Moscow (brazenly violating sanctions) to ask Putin for support -- and the Russian agreed. As everyone knows, Putin claimed to be saving the world from the Islamic State. However, for the most part (80% is the usual claim) he bombed the less rabid opposition forces and civilian targets.

Most pundits believed that the Russian intervention greatly helped Assad, and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was encouraged to make a series of remarkable offers to Putin at their last meeting in Tehran. According to a usually reliable source, Khamenei told the Russian he believed Putin was Iran’s “natural strategic partner” since the two shared several vital objectives: increase the price of petroleum, get the West out of the region, reestablish a Russian presence in Iraq, and jointly control several strategic choke points, including Oman, Aden, and East Africa.

Khamenei and Putin commiserated with each other about oil. They were earning about one-fifth the money they were getting 18 months earlier, and Khamenei claimed that if the price didn’t get up into the $70-$80 range, the Iranian economy would collapse in about a year.

Then came the deal offer from Iran: if the Russians joined Iran on a big scale, Tehran would cover the Kremlin’s Middle Eastern expenses up to $5 billion per year, starting April 1. Details would be managed, as always, by Ali Bagheri, Iran’s point man on everything Russian.