Syria : Putin’s real lesson to the West

Several days ago Putin caused surprise by announcing the retreat of Russian ground troops in Syria. He left commentators perplexed and divided. Sceptics saw a move to further destabilise and admirers saw the beauty of Russian gamesmanship. Since then, Russia has led the diplomatic charge in Geneva and taken part in the highly mediatised liberation of Palmyre. Should we be sceptical or acknowledging of Moscow's Syrian chapter? 

Those who have interpreted the Syrian intervention as a desire to affront the West in a "cold war" type episode have failed to observe that Moscow had a precise goal: that Assad and the Alawites not lose the war. This guaranteed protection of Russia’s military installations - permitting them to be reinforced - and provided a way to avoid the collapse of a regime, preventing a situation even more chaotic, as seen in Libya. Putin did not say that Assad must win the war, only that he must not lose it. This goal indicates a lucid vision of the real military situation and recognises that a resolution must be found with the parties responsible (excluding IS and other jihadists), all the while keeping its Syrian ally in a state of dependence. Thus, the salvaging of Assad means that the solution of "changing the regime" of the West has failed and Putin may now point to the weakness of those who have not provided the means to achieve their objectives; starting with Obama, whose decision not to combat the use of chemical weapons by Damascus in summer 2013 ruined his credibility. Putin's ultimate lesson to Obama seems to be this: limited results are acceptable. It’s what is catagorised in international relations as “realism”. In America's strategic thinking the moral register often dominates. This was the case recently with the neo-conservatives. Moral politics lead to vague goals in respect of war (the “war on evil” or “war against terror”) and consequently to a stalemate. By comparison, the achievement of a short intervention and a rapid retreat highlights 15 years of unfruitful American intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq. With Obama, the United States is not in a moralist phase, but the contrast is striking. The United States have no other strategy today than the use of drones and the elimination of jihadist leaders. Beyond this rightfully remarkable and efficient tactic, there is a lack of thinking and strategic willingness which Putin has underscored. The difficulty in explaining Russia's actions is due to its contradictory intentions. Putin wants both stability and hostility.  He stabilises Syria but continues to have a profoundly hostile agenda toward the West which he seeks to weaken through mind games and discrete attacks, namely the Ukraine. The key purpose of his politics is to revise the world order which was established by the 1991 collapse of the U.S.S.R: American leadership is refuted and Russia establishes itself as a powerful pole using, among other things, force. We can recognise the value brought by Russia in Syria yet remain lucid about its long term intentions. Philippe BOIS.


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