Vladimir Putin says he’s withdrawing most of his military from Syria. While the Russian president isn’t exactly known for telling the truth (he claims no Russian troops were in Ukraine despite massive amounts of evidence to the contrary), we can probably take him at his word on this score.
His intervention gamble has paid off handsomely. He reversed the momentum of the civil war, forcing the rebels to retreat across the board while creating a stalemate on the battlefield that has brought Assad’s opponents to the table. And because of his military’s efforts, Putin will now take a prominent seat at the peace talks, shaping negotiations for a post-Assad Syria that will probably still be a loyal client of Russia.
Putin is playing a game unknown to the current occupant of the White House, or his secretary of State. Their naive, starry-eyed view of 21st century international affairs has fallen victim to a master practitioner of 19th century power politics:
In his latest interview in the Atlantic with Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama tries to wave away what Putin has done in Syria and Ukraine: “The fact that he invades Crimea or is trying to prop up Assad doesn’t suddenly make him a player. You don’t see him in any of these meetings out here helping to shape the agenda. For that matter, there’s not a G20 meeting where the Russians set the agenda around any of the issues that are important.”
It’s telling that Obama thinks that the only thing that matters is the agenda at international gab-fests. That’s because the president, like most European heads of state, lives in a 21st century, post-power world where international law is more meaningful than brute force. Putin, by contrast, inhabits a 19th century, Realpolitik world where strongmen act to advance their own interests with scant regard for the feelings of other states, much less of multilateral institutions such as the G20 or the United Nations. In the clash between these two incompatible visions of the world, there is no doubt which one is winning: From Crimea to Syria, Putin is rewriting the rules of the international game in his favor.
In the case of Syria, Putin’s objectives are two-fold. First, he wants to ensure that Assad, a longtime Russian ally (and buyer of Russian weapons), is not toppled. Last fall, rebel forces were advancing and threatening Assad’s grip on power. No longer. The Russian intervention was ostensibly supposed to attack Islamic State. In fact, some 90% of Russian sorties have been directed not at its strongholds but at more moderate rebel groups backed by the United States. This has enabled Assad to regain part of Aleppo province and to consolidate his hold on an eastern corridor running from Damascus to the Mediterranean Sea.
Putin’s second objective is to reassert Russian power in the world — to make clear that Russia is not isolated after the unlawful invasion of Ukraine and that, in fact, it is ready to challenge American primacy in the Middle East, a region where the U.S. has been the dominant power for decades. That mission also has been accomplished. As a bonus, Putin even got to show off the capabilities of a new generation of advanced weapons systems, from fighter jets to cruise missiles, that he hopes to sell to eager customers around the world.
You will recall that President Obama confidently predicted that Putin would get “bogged down” in Syria. Coming from a guy who said that ISIS was the “JV,” and that the terrorists were “contained” 24 hours before the Paris attacks, that wasn’t surprising.
Putin did not get bogged down, nor was he hesitant, nor were there any public or private angst-ridden discussions in Putin’s inner circle about killing too many civilians. Putin won because he didn’t give a fig about international law, the rules of war, or any other convention that the U.S. is constrained to follow. He ruthlessly, and with terrifying violence, bombed the crap out of the rebels, their families, their homes, and their businesses. Thousands of civilians were deliberately targeted. Entire neighborhoods were reduced to piles of rubble.
Obama and Kerry will say that Putin didn’t gain anything by intervening on the side of a bloodthirsty tyrant like Bashar Assad. But if, when the smoke clears, Syria is still a Russian client state, Putin will have gained much at little cost.