One did not need to see the White House spokesman squirm and stutter on Monday to understand that nobody in this world has a clue just what is going through the head of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Just as he surprised the world six months ago when he decided to send his military to intervene in the Syrian civil war, he similarly amazed observers on Monday when he announced plans to gradually withdraw his forces from there.
Putin said Monday that Russia had achieved its goals in Syria.
It’s difficult to judge that statement, since it’s been unclear from the start what Russia’s goals were. If the aims were limited – preventing the collapse of President Bashar Assad’s regime – then the mission was indeed accomplished.
The Russian air force succeeded in keeping Assad in power. It prevented the regime from disintegrating and enabled Assad’s ground forces to expand their control over Syrian territory, while allowing the government to dictate the pace of events as the bloody war enters its sixth year.
Putin achieved this at a reasonably low cost, even in Russian terms. The only blow Russia absorbed was one fighter jet shot down by the Turkish military and a small number of casualties.
Russian intervention has also changed both the regional and the global balance of power. It has created a set of circumstances that make it conducive to maintain the fragile cease-fire that nobody believed would go into effect, let alone hold up for three weeks, as it has.
More than anything, the Russian intervention places Moscow on an equal superpower plane with the United States, whose policies in Syria, in particular – and the Middle East, in general – are losing all credibility and support amongst its friends.
Putin undoubtedly acted with wisdom and caution, particularly in light of the fact that he avoided getting caught up in the Syrian quagmire.
The Russian president avoided the same mistakes made by former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, who was seduced into sending troops in the late 1970s to Afghanistan to fight a war that lasted eight years and eventually led to a humiliating withdrawal.
That failure indirectly contributed to the collapse of the Soviet empire.
Putin understands that Syria will never return to being the sovereign state it once was with its traditional borders, as was the case in the period before 2011. This explains Russia’s readiness to lead a diplomatic effort that would turn Syria into a federally run political entity comprising a number of provinces – an Alawite fiefdom in the coastal area ruled by Assad, along with Kurdish and Druse enclaves, and chunks for the rebels.
Nonetheless, only time will tell whether the Russian withdrawal indicates that Assad’s forces will consolidate their power, or whether it is a signal to him to compromise with the rebels and reach a political agreement with them – or both.
The Russian gambit also serves the interests of both Iran and Israel. Russian intervention led to a certain rift with Iran, or, at the very least, Iranian discomfort. All of a sudden, Tehran finds itself playing second fiddle to Moscow. Now Iran will return to its customary position of buttressing Assad.
As for Israel, the Russian decision is both a blessing and curse. On the one hand, Israel gets back its freedom to maneuver militarily, which it exercised almost completely before Putin entered the fray. It will no longer have to coordinate its aerial activity in the skies above Syria with the Russians, nor will it need to clench its teeth in frustration as Russian fighter jets penetrate Israeli airspace over the Golan Heights.
On the other hand, Israel’s regained freedom of action could conflict with Iran’s re-established position of dominance on the Syrian front.
This, of course, assumes that the Russian decision is final – even if the withdrawal takes weeks to fully implement – and that there is no ruse behind it that would shock the world.
Some answers may surface this week when President Reuven Rivlin meets the enigmatic Putin at the Kremlin.