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The Russian Cause in Syria

Viewpoints, April 2016

Uzi Rabi

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announced withdrawal from Syria is far from the capitulation that many in the West imagine. Rather, it is a calculated scaling-back from a conflict in which casualties have been low and short-term objectives have been largely accomplished, all in the absence of any significant Western opposition. Putin committed ground forces to the war-torn nation — in notable contrast to the US and other western powers — under the pretext

Presidential Press and Information Office, President of Russia website. CC BY 4.0

Presidential Press and Information Office, President of Russia website. CC BY 4.0

of fighting the Islamic State (IS). In reality, the thrust of Russian military power has been directed against rebel groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad rather than the IS, in an effort to bolster the Syrian leader’s faltering regime.

Certainly the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan (1979-1989), in which American-trained Mujahedin exacted a heavy price both in Russian money and blood, must have weighed heavily on Putin’s mind as he calculated the extent and duration of his military operations in the Syrian theatre. The Russian withdrawal represents the greater understanding that Syria, as it existed before 2011, cannot be reconstructed — essentially amounting to a vote of no confidence in the Assad regime to resurrect itself. On a deeper level, Moscow recognizes that ethno-religious factors rather than religious nationalism will dictate the alignment of forces in the Middle East and it has responded accordingly.

“In a four-month operation and in an effort to stabilize the Assad regime, Russia has asserted itself in the Middle East and has weakened rebel groups which oppose the Syrian despot.”

The list of Russia’s accomplishments in the four-month campaign is hardly modest. Prior to Putin’s intervention, Assad had lost a great deal of power and was on the defensive. Hezbollah, ordered to intervene on Assad’s behalf by its Iranian taskmasters, suffered heavy casualties in Syria and its image as legitimately representing the Lebanese people was compromised. In turbulent surroundings, Putin established Russian troops as a stabilizing force, sending a clear message to the West and across the Middle East that Russia, rather than an indecisive United States, holds sway over developments in the region. More so, the Russian military will maintain two essential air and naval bases in Khmeimim and Tartus, thus retaining the ability to deploy forces to the region at a moment’s notice.

Putin’s latest power play highlights the absence of President Obama’s will to project America’s full military force– a notable contrast to his predecessor George W. Bush and to other Administrations of the 20th century. In September 2013, Obama, who had recently declared that use of chemical weapons by Assad was a ‘red line’ which, if crossed, would trigger direct American intervention in Syria, reneged on his own ultimatum, failing to punish and deter Assad when he used chemical weapons against his own people. The message to America’s allies and rivals was clear: Obama lacks the will to employ significant military power in order to maintain American leadership and credibility. It was a weakness upon which Mr. Putin and others have been swift to capitalize on.

Prof. Uzi Rabi is Head of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel-Aviv University and a member of the Israel Public Diplomacy Forum’s Academic Council.