Kosovo to Khmeimim: The 20-year strategy Russia played to outflank America

Putin has sought to restore Russia as a major international player.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin are seen during the G20 leaders summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina November 30, 2018 (photo credit: MARCOS BRINDICCI/REUTERS)
U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin are seen during the G20 leaders summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina November 30, 2018
The day after US President Donald Trump decided to withdraw from parts of northeastern Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin celebrated his birthday. It was a nice fall day in the Siberian taiga for Putin to enjoy the mountains and wildlife. He wore a comfortable green jacket. Trump meanwhile was busy jettisoning US policy in Syria, castigating US partners on the ground, and throwing away years of US work on a whim to further his isolationist agenda.
Putin could draw on 20 years of Russian foreign policy as he prepared to decide what to do amid the chaos the US was unleashing. Russia is the main backer of Basher al-Assad’s regime in Syria. It had intervened at key moments in the Syrian conflict to support the regime, especially after 2015 when it was clear the US was shifting toward the Iran Deal. Russia’s agenda was preserving the Assad regime. Soon it would also be working with Turkey.
The Russian president became Prime Minister in August 1999 when Russia was a very different country. Suffering the aftermath of the Cold War, the Russian Federation had been plunged into chaos and uncertainty with breakaway republics, conflicts, terror and economic failure. The Kosovo crisis in June 1999 was a key moment during Putin’s rise. He was secretary of the Security Council when Russia sent forces to Kosovo’s airport in a power play to beat the US and NATO. It was a limited show of force, but it was also a symbol that Russia was tired of being pushed around and watching its old allies be humiliated.
Since those days in 1999, Putin has sought to restore Russia as a major international player. He has done so slowly. It began with the Second Chechen War, and the 2008 Georgia war. Russia rebuilt its army and modernized its divisions, such as the paratroops and special forces. Then would come the Russian annexation of Crimea and involvement in the Ukraine conflict. That was at the same time as Russia was getting involved in Syria. Many thought that Russia would end up fighting Turkey after one of its planes was shot down in November 2015. But Russia was more pragmatic. Instead, it sought out a partnership with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and sealed a deal for a pipeline. Then it began to work closely with Turkey to solve the Syrian conflict. Through that, it scored the S-400 deal with Turkey. Soon Ankara, ostensibly an enemy over Syria, was becoming a partner.
As part of Russia’s deals with Turkey, the Russians agreed to let Turkey take over Afrin in northwest Syria in January 2018. The goal for Russia was to weaken the US relationship with the Kurdish YPG. But that didn’t work. Russia bided its time. Its goal was to evict the Americans. Under Trump, the US was seeking out a more “America First” strategy. So Russia waited reasoning that so long as America was going to isolate itself, there was no reason to interrupt your enemy while he was making a mistake. Russia waited and built up its influence, working more closely with Egypt on Libyan matters, and also opened discussions with Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Each step of the way, Russia saw a way to pry away a US ally.
The October decision by Trump may have caught Russia by surprise. But it was in discussions with Turkey already, since at least late July, about Turkey’s plans for an operation in northeast Syria that envisioned creating a zone of Turkish control over mostly Kurdish areas. The full details of that discussion were not clear. What was clear was that Russia, which once had closer contacts with some of the Kurdish groups in eastern Syria, saw Turkey as a partner. But Russia wanted its Syrian regime ally to return to eastern Syria as well.
Moscow understands that today in eastern Syria it would play the role NATO had played in Pristina airport in Kosovo in 1999. Now the Russians would be the arbiter, and it would be Russia deciding what would happen after discussions with Ankara, Damascus and the Kurdish leadership. According to reports, discussions with the Kurds took place at Russia’s Khmeimim airbase in northwest Syria, a symbol of Russian power in the country. The Syrian regime would return to parts of eastern Syria, according to the discussions. Russians might go into eastern Syria as well. Would there be Russian paratroops on the way, and some special forces, or just military police like Russia sent to southern Syria as Syria retook that area in the summer of 2018? The force mix was still being sorted out on Monday as Russia watched the US decide to leave and ironed out a deal between the SDF and the Syrian regime.
Moscow couldn’t imagine its good fortune. More than 100,000 US-trained SDF fighters, equipped by the Americans, were going to sign a deal to invite the Syrian regime in to protect their people from Turkey’s offensive. Not since America’s withdrawal from Vietnam had the US been so humiliated. But Putin knows he must be pragmatic and careful here. Into the vacuum of eastern Syria will enter uncertainty, such as ISIS detainees fleeing their prisons and Turkey’s Syrian rebel allies who tend to be extremists, all seeking to murder local people. Russia wants to appear the responsible actor, and not get caught in the middle of a conflict. Too much is riding on this. Billions of dollars in arms sales to Turkey along with the S-400. Preserving the Syrian regime. Humiliating the Americans and dictating terms to their former partners. Twenty years ago the Russians had felt humiliated and tried in vain to salvage some of that reputation in Kosovo. It was a limited gesture. Now, two decades later, the situation was reversed dramatically. But Russia is not yet a major power capable of replacing America’s fading global hegemony. It is a powerful country that must leverage that power carefully. Syria is a test case. Eastern Syria is a key to the end moves of that chess-like game. Then a new board will emerge as Russia tries to sort out the Iranian role in the region and concerns about it among other countries such as Israel.