In Syria, Putin at a crossroads
It has become so hard to distinguish what is tactical from what is strategic in Russia’s international politics or behavior, particularly with regard to Syria. After his heavy military interference in Syria in September 2015, Putin twice announced a reduction of his military forces in Syria; and it turned out that such moves were fake and at best tactical, because they were followed by an increase in Russia’s military power pouring into the country. One of his Generals even bragged about the Russian military testing 163 kinds of weapons in Syria that proved their excellence and superiority as lethal weapons. Putin, as such, has succeeded in turning Syria to an exhibition for his weapons. Russian weapons sales will go up for sure.
For the third time, Putin is making such an announcement of military reduction. No one yet knows whether this is a tactical or a strategic move. The timing is different: Russia is said to have reached the peak of its military success in its Syrian adventure; and many say that it is time to translate such achievement politically. Second the international political scene is different: there is another man in the White House. And third the nature of alliance in Syria is different: Turkey has powerfully entered the scene, and a potential Russian clash of interests with the old ally, Iran, is inevitable. Although what Putin has announced he is taking back is of a strategic nature (the aircraft carrier and strategic missiles), he still has enough fire power in Syria no one has: two huge military bases in Hmeimim and Tartus.
It is simply high time for Putin to cash in the assumed military success into political gains. However, can Putin turn his gymnastic deadly tactics into a serious strategic policy? The loose and indecisive Russian stand towards the Iranian-Assad breaching of Putin’s announced truce in several Syrian areas sends a mixture of signals with none being reflective of seriousness or strategicness. No one could believe or accept that Russia could not go into Wadi Barada (northwest of Damascus) to check the damage inflected by the Iranian militias on the source of water for the five million people living in Damascus. Could such a Russian behavior be a serious lack of power or control to stop these militias from ruining its peace proposal, or an attempt to throw the blame on its old partner and pressure its new partner together with an attempt to clear its page from the brutality perpetrated in Syria? If the situation is as such, one has to say that Russia is still in the world of tactics. More than anyone else, Russia knows who has blocked all attempts for a political settlement in Syria. Iran and the Assad regime are disturbed by the latest Russian peace move; and they are ready to do whatever it takes to ruin it. Their project is not yet finished, and it will never be.
Putin’s quick move to translate his assumed military success to a political achievement is indicative of a capability reflective of a strategic planning. When the American weight comes into the scene soon, it has no choice but to recognize such an achievement even at the international politics arena. However, if it turns out that Putin is still playing tactical games (announcing reduction of Russian military power in Syria, letting Iran’s militias and those of Assad’s spoil what he has proposed, and compromising with the Assad regime’s ethnic cleansing policies), he would be the main loser and any of the successes he claims would soon start decaying. Putin’s credibility is at stake. He is at a crossroads. Compromising with the Iranian pressure and giving Iran what it wants are the definite start of Putin’s defeat in Syria. Many are waiting for such a moment. He has to make possibly the hardest decision in his career. If his calculating mind fails him this time, many would be happy, but not Syrians who want their country free of him and those trying to ruin his plan.