Putin’s Syrian gambit

Russian President Vladimir Putin wasn’t bluffing when he claimed Russia’s “main objectives” in Syria had been achieved, however there’s more to it than that.

A MiG-29 fighter jet performs a manoeuvre as the Russian national flag flies in the foreground (photo credit: REUTERS)
A MiG-29 fighter jet performs a manoeuvre as the Russian national flag flies in the foreground
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 The whole world is trying to understand the motives behind Russia’s decision to pull troops out of Syria.
Russian President Vladimir Putin wasn’t bluffing when he claimed Russia’s “main objectives” in Syria had been achieved, however there’s more to it than that: the maneuver is part of a bigger game the aim of which is to further disrupt the United States’ relations with its Sunni allies and advance Russia’s position in the new regional security setting.
Russia’s military involvement reasserted the country’s world-power status and brought it back to the international arena after the Ukrainian isolation. In effect, the recent cease-fire was negotiated directly between Moscow and Washington.
Russia had no intention of getting itself bogged down in the Syrian quagmire. The so-called cease-fire served as a good precedent for Moscow, enabling it to take the lead on a political settlement in front of the entire world, while the pullout cut the risk of “Afghanistan syndrome.” The painful experience of fighting mujahedeen in Afghanistan and radical Islamists in the Northern Caucuses is still fresh in the minds of the Kremlin’s strategists. Putin likewise does not want to turn the entire Sunni world against him and thus it is better to step down now before it gets too late.
Moscow has a different vision for the future of Syria than Tehran and Damascus.
Russia supports the federal structure; Damascus opposes it vehemently. Putin does not believe Syria can become a state once again with its pre-conflict borders.
The Kremlin was rather seeking to assert its hard power and maintain the stronghold in the coastal Alawite enclave of Latakia with close alliance with the Druse and Kurds.
Russia is keen on Kurdish autonomy as this will help it leverage Turkish domestic and foreign policies. The Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) militia controls a large enclave in Syria and its Iraq branch was recently provided with five ZU-23-2 “Sergei” anti-aircraft cannons by the Russians according to Kommersant.
Despite Moscow, Tehran and Damascus assuring the pullout decision was coordinated, it is becoming more evident that it has taken everybody in Syria and Iran by surprise. Putin is actually committed to achieving peace in Syria and pulling out troops is a step in the right direction, however, the Kremlin only wants settlement because it will halt the Iranian expansion.
Putin’s involvement in the Syrian conflict has revealed to him a terrible truth regarding Iran’s dominant influence in Syria. Tehran keeps the Syrian elites under its thumb and leverages its influence with ground involvement of the Quds forces, Hezbollah, Iraqi and Afghan militias, as well as Syrian President Bashar Assad’s militia.
The Kremlin has become cautious; by propelling Assad’s regime it may also expand Iranian strength, at the cost of Russia economy.
20 million Russians are now living in poverty, up 50 percent for the past two years.
The Russian campaign has made it obvious that despite coordination with Iran the Islamic Republic still remains a competing power that sooner or later will pose a direct threat to the Kremlin’s interests. It became evident that Assad accommodates Iranian geopolitical goals and that by removing him the Kremlin would directly degrade Iran’s outreach. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has now abandoned the talk of regime change in Syria; the Kremlin is the party putting the strongest pressure on Assad to step down.
This is not the first time Moscow has using the tactic of saying one thing and doing the opposite. On one hand the Kremlin has successfully persuaded Secretary of State John Kerry to announce that “the United States and partners are not seeking so-called regime change,” and on the other is attempting to force Assad out.
The pullout should impose additional pressure on Assad and motivate him to be more constructive in Geneva. However, Damascus will not accept the transitional government agreement as it will prompt Assad’s removal in a matter of several months. Chief government negotiator Bashar al-Jaafari has recently labeled some members of the opposition in Geneva as terrorists and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem completely refused to discuss any issues regarding Assad’s presidency.
Moscow understands the risks a strong Iran entails for its geopolitical goals. Having an ascendant radical Shi’ite regional power on the southern Russian border scares the Kremlin more than dealing with conservative Sunni powers that might instigate radical Sunni insurgency.
Putin has recently halted supplies of S-300 systems to Iran. The Kremlin was also looking for ways to replace the contract with older modifications or reject it completely by steadily accusing Iran of inability to make payments on time.
Iran is perceived as less rational compared to the Saudis and other Gulf monarchies.
Tehran’s expansionist ideology and version of radical Shi’ite Islam might remind Kremlin’s elite of some of the tenets of Trotskyism.
Putin initially wanted to arm and equip the Iranians against the US, but only after getting into Syria did he realize Iran poses an imminent threat to Russia’s interests and is thus better left to Washington.
Both Moscow and Washington are now equally concerned about the political settlement to take place in Syria. However, the Russians want to halt Iranian expansion within the region, while Washington is more concerned with combating Islamic State (ISIS) and stopping the flow of refugees to the EU.
The Kremlin believes that the rise of ISIS is largely attributable to the American war in Iraq, and thus that it is Washington’s job to defeat ISIS in the Middle East. Russians are exclusively concerned about ISIS’s domestic influence in the Northern Caucasus and across Central Asia.
From the beginning Moscow was alarmed by the 2,000 fighters from Russia who were fighting in Syria. As the Kremlin has allegedly destroyed them – the ISIS-related core objective is complete for now.
Russia’s influence has propped up Assad’s regime, and his army is currently making substantial territorial gains. Damascus is now ready to launch large-scale offensives against ISIS in Palmyra and Aleppo, as well as to the south, to Ithriya. However, Russia’s pullout might disrupt these plans.
It might be a tactical way to tell Obama, “We are out now and if you really want to defeat ISIS you have to seek cooperation with Assad and the Iranians.”
Putin is hoping that the US, while trying to combat ISIS, will ally itself with Iran and Assad, falling into the same trap the Russians did at the beginning of the Syrian campaign. However, it is going to be impossible for Washington to extricate itself from Syria without seriously damaging its already crippled relations with the Gulf monarchies.
Obama’s interview with The Atlantic highlights his twisted belief that the only way to reconcile the Sunni-Shi’ite divide in the Middle East is to reduce America’s involvement.
In effect, however, decreased support for traditional US allies such as Saudi Arabia will bolster Iran. Such thinking is proof of the Saudis’ worst fear: the United States is actually siding with Tehran.
The current US allies in the region unanimously perceive Iran as the major troublemaker in the Middle East, perpetuating both the Sunni-Shi’ite conflict and anti-monarchy sentiments. They believe Obama’s decision to cooperate with the Iranians in combating ISIS is gradually making Tehran a pillar of US foreign policy in the region.
Betrayal is the one thing that cannot be forgiven in the Middle East, and it may ruin America’s traditional relations with its partners and push those seeking allies elsewhere. As a result Russia will become more appealing everywhere from Riyadh to Doha.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has already opened pathways for working Washington-Tehran relations. Secretary of State Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif share warm relations that culminated in a number of mutual concessions since the beginning of the year. Possible cooperation in Syria over fighting ISIS will drive Washington and Tehran even closer to each other.
Tehran wants to safeguard its interests in Syria and also defeat ISIS, however, it cannot do it by itself. As Russia’s support will now decrease, it will seek better cooperation with the White House.
Washington will remain closely allied with the Gulf nations and a guarantor of their security; the shift of US-Iran policy will inflict irreparable damage.
The Sunni monarchies will grow more distant toward Washington as it will have lost their trust. Growing controversies between Obama and King Salman on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen, execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and sanctions against Lebanon have only added fuel to the fire. Tehran and Washington are now getting closer to each other and this is exactly what Putin wants.

The author is an international politics researcher who specializes in the Middle East. He has worked and studied in several Gulf countries, and has written for outlets such as The Jerusalem Post, Russian International Affairs Council, Your Middle East Foundation, Trade Arabia and others.