Middle East

What are Vladimir and Barack Really up to in Syria?

By Andrej Mrevlje |

On  March 14, Russia 1, a state-owned TV channel, ran a news segment that showed what was supposed to be an intense discussion between Russian President Vladimir Putin, Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. In reality, this purportedly spontaneous event — live from the Kremlin — consisted of written reports on Syria, which the two ministers read to their boss. Their voices were monotonous and the footage seemed to go on forever. It was such a boring scene that even Putin, otherwise a brilliant actor, was getting jittery in his chair. Though he pretended that he was listening, he was clearly waiting impatiently for his turn to speak. At the end of this bad, 10-minute-long performance, Putin announced the withdrawal of the “main part” of Russian forces from Syria.

The next day, the Russian state-run media was busy reporting the withdrawal. News programs showed footage of aircrafts landing in the city of Voronezh, about 350 miles south of Moscow. About half of the 60 aircrafts deployed in Syria are coming home, a source in the Russian Ministry of Defense told the Vedomosti.

The news flew around the world at the speed of the light. The reactions to this most recent show of Putin’s unpredictability were various and conflicting.

According to Foreign Policy:

Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said that, until the past week, he had been in touch with officials close to the Assad regime in Damascus who expressed “a constant drumbeat of confidence that they’re going to take back every inch of Syrian soil, and Russia is their partner.” But those communications abruptly fell off earlier this month. “No one was answering the phones in Damascus. That leads me to believe they were thrown for a loop.”

Landis said that Putin’s planned withdrawal from Syria means he’s not going to back Assad “all the way.” But he said the move was also likely aimed at Washington, which has frustrated Moscow by refusing to work with Putin to fight the Islamic State. “This is a shot across America’s bow as well,” Landis said, “with Russia saying, ‘We’ll leave, and you’ll be stuck holding the bag in Syria’.”

In the same article, Foreign Policy reports that, “The withdrawal announcement, reported by Russian state media, appears to have caught the White House off guard. A senior administration official said Monday that it had seen reports of the Russian move and that ‘we expect to learn more about this in the coming hours.’ A spokesman for the Defense Department declined to comment.”

Does this mean that the old KGB fox – President Putin – did it again? Did he catch the White House off-guard, dictating his own rhythm again, as he’s done in the last couple of years, with the substantial deterioration of the U.S.-Russia relationship?  Or is there more going on behind the scenes? Could Putin’s second act in Syria have played out with the U.S.’s participation, or at least with its quiet agreement?

On the other side of the Atlantic, some commentators are pointing out that Putin’s move could work to both sides’ advantage.To be sure, Syria – as I’ve mentioned before – has not only been tortured by bombs, chemical weapons and genocide, but has also gotten caught in the crossfire between news organizations from different parts of the world that play their silly, partisan games at Syria’s expense.

But to explain what really triggered and motivated Putin’s surprising move – George Friedman offered a cogent alternative explanation in an interview with Ed D’Agostino for Mauldin Economics:

The real question is why did they go in! They went in for a number of reasons, the least of which was protecting Assad, who was disposable.They went in first to demonstrate they could. They took 70 years aircrafts they deployed at a distance; and that was impressive.

The second thing is, they got to do the U.S. a favor. The United States opposes Assad, but it can’t afford Assad to be overthrown now, because ISIS might move into the vacuum. At the same time the U.S. can’t say we’re gonna protect Assad for a while and then cut his throat. … They took care of the problem of Assad without having to have American fingerprints on it.

And the final thing, which the president and Putin spoke about yesterday, was Ukraine. Having in effect cooperated with U.S in Syria … they are now ready to have a conversation about the thing that really matters to them. That is the future of the Ukraine.

There is a kind of settlement on the table where we agree that Ukraine is not going to be part of any kind of Western defense system, which is a good idea, since we can’t really defend them. The Russians agree to some sort of compromise on eastern Ukraine and on Crimea. They get a neutral Ukraine that doesn’t pose a military threat to them, and we diffuse the crisis. …

Temporarily, Assad’s regime is stable; temporarily ISIS has had another defeat, if you want to call it. The … the non-ISIS opposition was always a joke and is completely fragmented and is not significant. In the long run, it really doesn’t change the equation. In the short run, it means that Damascus is safe from ISIS, which is pretty good from our point of view.

Friedman’s interpretation did not catch fire among mainstream news organizations in the U.S. Only Maxim Trudolyubov of the Kennan Institute, who wrote an article for Newsweek, used the same intelligence source as Friedman. However, it made sense to expect traces of uninterrupted contact between the U.S. and Russia, due to the continuous negotiations between the two sides, starting with Iran and Syria. The last hint that dialog between Russia and America was uninterrupted despite political tensions, was a very long and revealing article in the Atlantic. In “The Obama Doctrine,” author Jeffrey Goldberg talks with the president about his long decision-making process when it comes to foreign policy and whether or not to stick to the traditional “Washington Playbook.” There is some hard thinking on what the White House really thought of early Syrian opposition; there is drama about unexpectedly giving Assad an ultimatum – the red line that America will bomb the dictator for crossing. And there are pages of discussion about how and why, at the last moment, Obama decided not to bomb Syria; and about the tensions between him and Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State, that might be indicative of how hawkish American foreign policy might be if Clinton takes over Obama’s command in the White House next year. Or if the next president is Donald Trump.

From this point of view, it is therefore imperative to cement some of the proposals that are on the negotiating table. Despite the overblown tensions between the two old superpowers, and all the media’s talk of the Cold War, Putin and Obama seem to be more appealing negotiators than the generations of politicians that are standing in line behind them. And this, as Friedman said, will be very hard to achieve, thanks both to the political war hawks and the public on both sides, who are pumped up by saber-rattling media coverage.

Yonder is a weekly newsletter from Andrej Mrevlje that connects global events in the news, delivered every week. Learn more »

Questions? am@yondernews.com