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Mission Accomplished?
Putin Announces Withdrawal From Syria

Once more, Russia’s Vladimir Putin has surprised almost all observers by announcing that as of tomorrow, he is withdrawing most of his forces from Syria. Russia Today has the official English-language writeup:

“I consider the objectives that have been set for the Defense Ministry to be generally accomplished. That is why I order to start withdrawal of the main part of our military group from the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic starting from tomorrow,”Putin said on Monday during a meeting with Shoigu and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

To control the observation of ceasefire agreements in the region, Moscow will keep its Khmeimim airbase in Latakia province and a base at the port of Tartus, Putin said.

At Moscow’s initiative, a phone conversation between Vladimir Putin and Syria’s President Bashar Assad was held on Monday evening, the Kremlin reported.

Given the complexities and murkiness of the Syrian war—and the tendency of the Russian President to dissemble, especially when it comes to military matters—it’s nearly impossible to know just how much Russia’s presence will be diminished overall. But what the announcement does show us, once again, is that Putin is a quick mover, always thinking on his feet, always improvising.

President Obama has on several instances predicted that Syria would become Russia’s Iraq—a bloody quagmire which Putin would regret as much as Soviet leaders came to rue Afghanistan. That prediction is, alas, not likely to pan out. There are several important differences between Syria and Iraq that Obama seems to have glossed over when he made his prediction. In Iraq, the Bush Administration couldn’t find anybody willing and able to govern the country. The United States had to slog through some painful years while an Iraqi government slowly took shape. In Syria, on the other hand, Assad is willing—even eager—to keep governing the country, and we know there are no crimes he won’t commit to make his fever dream come true. Putin doesn’t need to destroy all the rebel groups in Syria, much less build a durable and just government in Damascus. Putin doesn’t actually care if the rebellion smoulders on, or the atrocities continue, or that the West continues to tie itself in knots over ISIS. He just needs to prop up his client, in the knowledge that Assad and Iran will go on to do most of the grunt work for him.

In both Syria and Ukraine, Putin’s objectives are much less transformational and ambitious than the ones the U.S. selected for itself in either Afghanistan or Iraq—and they are thus much more achievable. Russia is not an order-building power like the U.S. or the EU—it just needs to wreck and block their efforts to build. Putin just needs Assad to hang on, just as he needs Ukraine’s government to fail to build a modern, Western, democratic society.

The inescapable fact is that, with limited means, Putin has shown a talent for achieving his limited ends. With much greater means, the U.S. and the EU have again and again failed to achieve their own poorly chosen and ill-defined ends. That can only be described as a failure of vision and leadership on the part of the West. And as the leader of the most powerful Western nation, Obama cannot avoid getting the lion’s share of the blame.

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  • Ellen

    In other words, Putin once again has humiliated Obama by coming out on top in a chess match. Sadly, that is the normal course of affairs for the last 7 years and will remain so until either Trump or Clinton enter the White House.

    • Nevis07

      I want to agree with you, but I’m not even sure after all these years in office that Obama even knows a chess match was occurring. It’d be one thing to lose at a game of geopolitical wit, but that assumes both players are aware there’s a competition and I’m not certain that Obama is sitting at the table. If anything, he seems to believe that by not playing that he’ll somehow come out ahead – which of course isn’t true.

      Meanwhile, the rest of the world will wonder what Putin’s next move is. Back to Ukraine perhaps – after all, the EU hasn’t dissolved quite yet. Putin knows that the next president will be more hawkish than Obama, so he will IMO likely make his last moves this summer before the general election

  • Beauceron

    “And as the leader of the most powerful Western nation, Obama cannot avoid getting the lion’s share of the blame.”

    Wanna bet?

    The press and academics almost literally worship Obama, as he is the point man for their ideology.
    These mounting failures won’t even be mentioned in any assessment of the President, and Obama’s name won’t be mentioned in any history of Syria’s war.

    Now, Bush is another matter. He should be should be on trial for his failures in Syria and Libya!

    • Blackbeard

      Yes, in the short run (20 years?) you are correct. The left owns the media and they will continue to gloss over, ignore and distort the failures of this most incompetent of presidents. Nevertheless I continue to believe the verdict of history will be very different.

      • Ellen

        I agree with you. Especially regarding the breakdown of the political order in the MidEast, Obama will indeed receive much blame not just for his obvious failures in Syria. But also for his total misreading of the significance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the context of at least 7 other more important things going on in the region. Kerry wasted an enormous of time, energy and prestige on a conflict that was not solvable by his intervention. He actually made things worse, and meanwhile totally ignored the most important events in the region which include the breakup of Syria and Iraq.

        In domestic affairs, Obama will receive much greater blame for the rise of Trump and the internal decline of the democratic party (no young leaders at all). This latter issue is being totally ignored by our dunce-like media who are hitched lock stock and barrel to the DP narrative. Obama has sunk his party into a politically correct dead end with its fixation on race and gender rather than class, religion and culture, which is the real segmentation scheme that describes the US population.

        They’re all clueless, and Trump is riding this wave possibly all the way to the White House before they realize that race and gender are not the fault lines that matter. All you can say about the media and the academic colleagues of Prof. Mead, they should all be FIRED for displaying gross incompetence in understanding their own society. And they want to bring democracy to the tribes in the Near East? How about bringing it to your own society first? But, ladies and gentlemen, that may mean……DONALD TRUMP will be president!!!

  • Andrew Allison

    “In both Syria and Ukraine, Putin’s objectives are much less transformational and ambitious than the ones the U.S. selected for itself in either Afghanistan or Iraq—and they are thus much more achievable. Russia is not an order-building power like the U.S.” is the crux of the matter.

  • Episteme

    On the same order of the Latakia and Tartus installation, keep in mind that the Ukraine incursion and destabilization ended up with the Crimea ‘re’acquisition – and the naval installations and ports that are there (along with the Ukrainian territory ‘bridging’ Crimea and Russia). Between those two Syrian and Ukrainian adventures, that gives Russia access to the Mediterranean and Black Seas, while creating or propping up proxy statelets (in Assad and Donbas province) as buffers between it and the now-burdened EU/NATO and Sunni alliances left to deal with the messes left by Putin like so much chaff around his new acquisitions. Because of new trade links with growing nations and with the newly-reopened Iran, the ability to ship material (including entirely legal material) in and out of such ports in these seas has massive potential for continued redevelopment of Russia as a power – these movements in Ukraine and Syria, using mixed forces and heavy involvement of proxies backed by Russian intelligence and arms as a means to seemingly gain such small but vital aims might not world-historical, but it’s certainly a clever strategic gambit on Russia’s part (although one could easily argue that, were Russia to endeavor to start in major power territory, such gambits were necessary).

    • Episteme

      Michael Weiss at the Daily Beast has a piece on the withdrawal that incidentally connects with my thinking, by looking at how the Russian “investment” in Assad’s survival – even with the short-term cost of war – has led to a major growth in global arms sales, with the display of new armament in Syria as a demonstration of the newest generation of military technology (record growth in 2015 sure to be exceeded in 2016). Although he doesn’t get into the issue of ports, given the size and weight of equipment in question, having newfound access to facilities for shipments by container ship would be incredibly important (despite the use of air for most shipping today, military technology – things like tanks and bombs – are too heavy to travel by plane and need to still be moved by sea or train). Looking at the way the that these two interventions ended up and the buildup of Russia’s commercial and diplomatic relations (including the use of trade and banking warfare where applicable) over the past two years, I still think that this is the best overall explanation – particularly in light of the nation’s years of economic stagnation and the faltering energy markets – rather than previous theories of direct territorial expansion.

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