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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