Vladimir Putin’s announcement on Monday that he will withdraw the bulk of Russian forces from Syria tells us something we already suspected: that he is very good at war.
He is also a liar, of course, as we also already knew. Russian troops are supposed to be fighting the Islamic State, and the Islamic State still lives. It has lost about 25% of its territory, but is still in a position to threaten foreign capitals and maintains footholds in countries from Nigeria to Afghanistan. And yet the Russians are going home.
Putin’s war is a textbook case of how to fight: using overwhelming force for clear political objectives in the most cost-effective means possible, on the back of reliable local allies.
The Russian intervention was never about ISIS. It was intended to shore up the friendly regime of Bashar Assad, which it has done. Together with Iranian and Hezbollah forces, Russian airstrikes have devastated the non-ISIS rebels and allowed Damascus to retake vital territory along the Turkish border, nearly cutting off Aleppo.
The fall of Aleppo, the largest rebel-held city, would effectively end any threat to the regime. Peace negotiations are increasingly a sham. The Syrian foreign minister said that the talks beginning on Monday would not include the future of Assad, who “belongs to the Syrian people.” And since he is winning, he is in a position to dictate.
Even more important than Assad, however, is Putin’s message: that political outcomes, like Assad staying in power, could be achieved through Russian military power. That’s an old Soviet message to the Middle East, but never sent as effectively as today.
Because if nations in the Middle East — if nations anywhere — can accomplish their goals with Russian force, more and more countries will start asking Russia to provide it. That’s not a good sign for the world America is trying to build.
Putin’s war, admittedly, is easier than our own. Russia can offer its unqualified support for a strongman like Assad or Saddam Hussein and be unconcerned about their domestic policy choices, be they chemical weapons or woodchippers. America is not so lucky — we demand morality from our allies, even in a region where angels are few.
President Obama has no easy ally like Assad, because for most Americans Assad and his sarin gas are beyond the pale. He has never been able to reconcile prioritizing his desire to defeat ISIS over his desire to defeat Assad. He thus wants to beat ISIS without offering an alternative government to the butcher. Without America’s own troops, its ground allies have to come from somewhere, and because we won’t commit to removing Assad, they won’t come from the Sunnis. Both wars have thus stalled, at best. But not Russia’s.
There are two caveats to this grim assessment. First, Russia may well be running out of money. Low oil prices and international sanctions have savaged the Russian economy, and its airstrikes were estimated to be costing about $4 million per day. Russia is desperate for the Saudis to reduce oil production and increase prices. They won’t. Last week, Saudi Arabia was instead reported to be requesting a $6-8 billion bank loan, which shows how serious Riyadh is about bankrupting Russia and Iran. With victory in sight in Syria, Russia may well be on the defensive financially.
Second, Russia has a problem with the Kurdish question. The Syrian Kurds have improbably good relations with both America and Russia. The U.S. supports the Kurds because they fight ISIS and Russia supports them because their relatives harass the Turks. But Assad’s government has made it very clear that he intends to reconquer all of Syria, which would bring Russia’s two allies into a collision course.
Moscow may want to stay out of that confrontation as much as possible, or at least postpone the choosing.
But money and the Kurds are very much silver linings. Putin got what he wanted from his war. With luck, somebody was taking notes.
BY ANDREW PEEK Peek was a strategic advisor to the top NATO commander in Afghanistan and is currently a professor at Claremont McKenna College.