As with his entry into Syria, Putin’s departure comes as a surprise and leaves us guessing about his intentions. Today, as in October 2015, the world looks with amazement at the all-powerful Vladimir Putin, the leader of Russia, who appears to be the only one who knows how to capitalize on American weakness and restore Russia’s international status. Indeed, there is a huge contrast between Putin, who sent planes to bomb Syrian cities, and Obama, who demurred about taking any action to implement his demands that Bashar al-Assad step aside. American passivity fueled Russian activism. So far, however, neither Putin nor Obama has taken steps to end the bloodshed and the terrible destruction in Syria.
Since no one knows what Putin’s goals were when he deployed the Russian air force to Syria, there is no one who can specify for certain his motives for withdrawal. It may be possible to attribute this to his political genius, but it might equally be true that the whole venture is a folly that has entangled Russia in a conflict whose outcome is unpredictable.
There is little doubt that Putin’s intervention was intended to save the Assad regime from collapse. In this he failed. Assad will not survive despite massive support from Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and the Iraqi Shiite militias. Even though the Syrian opposition is unable to defend itself from Russian and Syrian air power, and even though it has no counter to the supply of Russian weapons, and despite the West’s inaction, the Assad regime remains teetering on the verge of collapse, its military crumbling. Even after the terrible destruction inflicted on Syria – 350,000 deaths, millions of refugees, destroyed cities and starving citizens – the picture has not changed.
Despite its claim to be fighting the Islamic State (ISIS), Russia focused its attacks on areas controlled by the moderate Syrian opposition, which sees ISIS as an enemy. The results of Russian involvement in Syria are devastating: 2000 killed in aerial bombardments, the complete destruction of clinics, markets, schools and homes in areas controlled by the moderate Syrian opposition, and tens of thousands of refugees, who have fled the fighting and are trying to escape to the West. Many of the more recent refugees are now on the border with Turkey. Turkey refuses to let them enter its territory, so they are abandoned to harsh weather and appalling living conditions. The desert region in Syria is controlled by ISIS. It was never bombed, and life there goes on as usual. Thus, Russia is contributing to the growing humanitarian disaster in Syria without diminishing ISIS’s hold over territory.
Putin’s “achievements” are meager. He weakened the democratic opposition to Assad. He accomplished this with the help of Kurdish forces, who exploited Russian bombing to join forces with Assad and grab territory from the opposition. Putin did return some vital areas to Assad’s control. These include the supply routes between Turkey and the besieged city of Aleppo. However, here Putin was forced to stop. Neither Assad nor Putin are able to conquer Aleppo. All attempts to cut off the city from its Turkish hinterground may lead to direct intervention by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which have repeatedly stated that this is a red line for them.
Putin’s main goal was to defeat the opposition, and replace it with an “opposition” loyal to the Assad regime. For a long time Moscow acted to create an alternative to the opposition democratic forces. These efforts were concentrated on the Kurdish Democratic Party (PYD). However, the Turkish veto thwarted the Russians. They were compelled, in effect, to declare a ceasefire before completing their mission. The new round of negotiations in Geneva between the opposition and the Syrian regime marks, for now, the end of the Russian military campaign. Assad, unlike the Russians, does not want a ceasefire, and has no interest in renewing negotiations. Hence, the statement of the Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid Muallem, that Assad’s future is not up for discussion. This position highlights the gap between the Syrian regime and its Russian benefactor.
The ceasefire was used by the democratic opposition in Syria to come out and protest against the regime. Non-violent mass demonstrations, which took place in the streets of the bombed-out cities, were reminiscent of protests at the beginning of the revolution. Despite the death and destruction that have been visited on the Syrian people in the past five years, they have not given up and refuse to return to the days of dictatorship. These demonstrations will not affect Putin. Like all dictators, he holds life and human rights in contempt. But they make it clear that aerial bombing will not decide the outcome of the war. There is no chance that Assad’s disintegrating regime will overcome civil resistance to his rule. Putin was sorely mistaken when he came to protect this bloody regime; a regime that had lost all legitimacy in the eyes of its people and in the eyes of the international community. His efforts to save a government accused of committing crimes against humanity reveals the fact that Putin lacks all moral boundaries.
Putin has no winning cards. His “tactical flexibility” of withdrawal cannot determine Syria’s future, and all attempts to save the Assad regime will only prolong the war and increase the flow of refugees to Europe. Russia itself is edging toward economic collapse. It does not have much to offer the Syrian economy except arms. Iran and Hezbollah will not contribute anything to help rebuild Syria. Russia may have a formidable air force, but it is no a position to financially help Syria and influence its future. Putin knows how to destroy, but he leaves reconstruction to others. Indeed, the Syrian people need an enormous influx of economic aid from the international community so that they can rebuild what Assad destroyed.
Russian withdrawal from Syria is symptomatic of Assad’s failed policy of relying on a military solution. It also shows that ISIS was never an enemy of the regime, but an enemy of the Syrian revolution and its democratic agenda. Despite all the words spilled about the danger of ISIS, the Russian and Syrian regimes never really engaged them militarily. To defeat ISIS, one must first remove the rationale that led to its proliferation, i.e. Assad. Today the Syrian regime is forced to negotiate with the opposition; it has agreed to a ceasefire, and eventually will be forced to give up the battle cry: “Assad or the country burns!”
Putin understands that Assad will not return to be the leader of Syria, so he clings to the idea of dividing the country along sectarian lines. This will enable him to continue to control the seaport and the airport near the Alawite-controlled coastal city of Latakia. That is why he helped the Kurds to establish their autonomous region in northern Syria. But the majority of the Syrian people oppose this idea because it leaves Syria in conflict, divided, and easy prey to repeated interference from Iran, Hezbollah, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. Dividing the country will also strengthen ISIS and thwart plans for rebuilding. The only basis for the rehabilitation of Syria is the creation of a democratic regime.
The proposal of dividing Syria into enclaves is actually a replication of the Iraq and Lebanon model, which will only perpetuate internal conflicts, sectarian violence and instability. The attempt to impose this model on Syria will intensify extremism, increase the suffering of civilians and leave ISIS as a major player in the region. If the Syrian people will not unite around a democratic constitution that guarantees the rights of all citizens, regardless of religion or sect, the civil war in Syria will continue even after Assad falls.
- Translated from the Hebrew by Robert Goldman