On the same day as yet another round of Syria talks convened in Geneva on Monday, March 14th, Russian President Vladimir Putin once again occupied the headlines. Putin’s statement argued that Russia’s military intervention in Syria had achieved its goals and that Russia was withdrawing “the main part” of its military forces in Syria. To some, this is exactly the playbook Putin conducted skillfully in Ukraine before re-entering the battlefield more forcefully, not soon after Russia’s previous “withdrawals.” Others, however, argue that the announcement validated what the White House has long insisted: Putin was going to embed himself in a quagmire in Syria. He was antagonizing the Sunni world and would soon see its own radicals bite him at home. And more importantly, with Ukraine related sanctions already inflicting harm on the Russian economy, Putin’s financial troubles would eventually force him to give up on doubling down on the side of Assad regime. Putin’s announcement on March 14 caught Washington off-guard as well. During Monday’s State Department Briefing, Spokesman John Kirby had no clue about Putin’s announcement. The next few weeks witnessed mediated talks, a visit to Kremlin by Secretary of State John Kerry and a less than perfect observance of the cessation of hostilities.
As the Geneva talks are expected to resume again, John Kerry sees the potential to resolve the conflict diplomatically in this last round. However, in the last two weeks there have been troubling signs that not only the cessation of hostilities is about to collapse, but also that the Assad regime has become increasingly more obstructive, thanks to continued Russian support. The question now is if the Obama administration will let go of its own misconceptions about the Syrian civil war and Russia’s role in it. According to a BBC report, by mid-March Russia had conducted more than 9000 air sorties in Syria, the majority of which, according to Western governments and contrary to Russian proclamations, targeted civilian areas and anti-Assad rebels. Russian military advisers and air force helped Assad’s army to retake 400 settlements and reclaim 10000 sq. km of land from either the rebels or ISIS related groups.
Putin’s announcement came after he spoke on the phone with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. Next, Obama and Putin spoke on the phone, at the request of the White House. It was not until late Friday that week that the Assad regime or the Syrian rebels would show up to Geneva for what was dubbed by its UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura “a moment of truth,” which, if failed, did not have any alternatives other than the resumption of costly fighting. For some, Putin’s unexpected announcement was a harbinger of the end of Assad regime in Syria. The Russian strongman was leaving his close ally hanging in the air. Others, however, pointed out that the United States’ ambitious goals in Syria – defeating the Islamic State and keeping Syria a unitary state with its administrative structures intact – were never complemented with necessary political and military steps. In contrast, Putin applied himself in a decisive matter and with more limited goals: preventing the military and political collapse of Assad regime, interjecting itself in the world stage and testing Russia’s military prowess to the world. And now, just as he did before the Minsk process in Ukraine, Putin was taking another calculated step as the peace talks in Geneva seemed to have gained some traction.
Putin’s Tricks and Washington’s Wishful Thinking
A closer look at the unfolding of events in Syria since March 14th suggests that the White House’s optimistic expectations amount to wishful thinking at best. The Iranians, for example, proclaimed the Russian move was not a surprise and is a coordinated tactical move. Importantly, Putin kept both Tartus naval station and Khmeimim air base operational, under the pretext of observing cessation of hostilities. The downgrading of Russian aircraft in Syria from around 60 fighter jets and helicopters to around 30 should not also divert attention away from the fact Russia has installed S-400 air defense systems in the country. This also means that Russian downgrading is taking place at a time when relative calm between the regime and the Syrian opposition would increase the pressure on Russia to contribute to the anti-ISIS air campaign. In testament to Russian and Assad regimes’ keen interest in shaping global public opinion, the military campaign to retake Palmyra from ISIS and “preserve world’s cultural heritage” paid off last week, thereby earning the brutal regime accolades, however unenthusiastic, from the international community. Careful observers argue that the regime is eyeing Raqqa and there may be an eventual de facto situation whereby its military efforts against ISIS converges with the campaign of the U.S. And importantly, recent reports suggest that the Kremlin sent a new batch of attack helicopters to Syria, and has increasingly relied on this new lethal force in its air campaign. Furthermore, the Russians do not hide that their special operations commandoes remain active in Syria. In this process, the regime, aided by Russian forces, is focusing on Damascene suburbs and on strategic rebel-held areas such as Deir Ezzor. At the same time, the regime seeks to strike deals with local tribal leaders to further marginalize the rebels.
Across Washington’s Obama-sceptics – both Democrats and Republicans – one can sense an admiration for Vladimir Putin. Obama argued long and strongly that these circles were fundamentally mistaken. Facts on the ground signal, however, that Putin not only achieved most of his primary goals in Syria but also managed to control the public debate. And he may still rely on his remaining forces and his Iranian and Lebanese allies to significantly alter the course of the conflict in Syria going forward. In contrast, Obama relies on his Secretary of State’s diplomatic skills without real chips in his hands, and on proxies such as the PYD, whose military and political goals are considerably different than those of the White House. When Secretary Kerry visited the Kremlin on March 24th, it was the Putin-Lavrov duo and not Kerry who held the upper-hand. Despite the fact the two sides underlined that the cessation of hostilities remained active and there was some progress toward access to humanitarian aid, the last two weeks have revealed that meaningful progress on both has been lacking due to frequent violations by the Syrian regime. With the precarious state of affairs increasingly visible, the Americans continue their verbal pressure on Russia and the Assad regime but many in Washington admit that Obama administration’s unwillingness to put some real skin in the game in Syria has already resulted in the repetition of Putin’s “distract, deceive and destroy” playbook. It seems highly unlikely, however, that Obama will be convinced to change course. The “political process” may yield some results in the next few months. After all, imperfect deals are a natural result of prolonged and deadly civil wars. But one question remains critical: Will America ever bounce back from the Obama Administration’s mistakes in its Syria policy? In his Atlantic interview, President Obama took pride in resisting the policy world’s insistence to follow a different path in Syria. However, the President continues to erroneously frame any critique of his Syria policy as mere neo-con adventurism. He may be right that, in the long run, Putin will be remembered for the intentional massacres of civilians in Syria. Yet, it is also true that the Obama administration may be remembered for “unwillingly” paving the way for the Russian intervention. Furthermore, an imperfect peace deal that keeps the essential fault lines that precipitated the emergence of ISIS and regime brutality intact will have long-lasting ramifications. Although Obama seems to think of the Middle East peripheral to American interests, the region will remain the center of attention for the next occupant of the Oval Office. It is true that America cannot fight its way out of Iraq and Syria. But Obama’s indecisiveness, if continued in the next few months, will make sure that a potentially costlier American entrenchment in the region will become almost certain.