This post has been retitled because the former title, “Congratulations President Putin!” might give the impression of prejudice towards an outcome desired by the Russians. This is not my desire. The best of all possible worlds would be a harmonious state in which the Alawite minority lived in prosperous co-existence with the Sunni majority. Unfortunately, such a rosy outcome would be unprecedented for the region. The second best would be a partition of land based on ancestral origins and economic viability. There is a natural expectation, based upon past experience with the Russians during the Cold War and Ukraine, that they will try to provide their Alawite clients with something more than that. I cannot contradict the possibility.
Nevertheless, Putin is to be congratulated, perhaps sardonically, for his tactical agility and consequent lack of predictability. It provides the effect of a force multiplier by diminishing the abilities of Russia’s adversaries to combine. For example, if Turkey and Saudi Arabia were in the process of attempting to constitute a ground intervention, Putin’s withdrawal, however temporary it may be, constitutes an obstacle. It does so by denying a sense of urgency to Russia’s adversaries.
How temporary could the withdrawal be? Consider these news headlines:
- May 9, 2014. Putin orders Russian troop withdrawal from Ukrainian border
- September 10, 2014. Most Russian troops in Ukraine have withdrawn, Ukrainian president says
- October 12, 2014. Putin orders Russian troop withdrawal from Ukrainian border
- October 3, 2015. Ukraine crisis: ‘Weapons pullout begins’
Perhaps Putin should have added this.
The original post follows.
The recent announcement (Reuters), “Putin says Russians to start withdrawing from Syria, as peace talks resume” is a demonstration of tactical agility the West would be hard pressed to match. It is particularly impressive considering the likelihood that Russian engagement and disengagement will have to happen many times before a stable situation is reached, if ever.
The West currently lacks this kind of tactical flexibility. To achieve the same effect, legions of policy-makers would have to be dismissed, rotated, elevated, and demoted, with a time scale irrelevant to the situation in real time. We must look back to the tenure of Henry Kissinger to find it.
The lack of Western agility is a remnant of Bloc-World thinking, where the abstraction called “influence” acquired the status now accorded to digital currencies. In those days, when “influence” was imagined to be an almost bankable commodity, a monotonic foreign policy “push”, supported by ingrained “policy” did not seem absurd. After all, Containment did work.
But since Bloc World has vanished, and unless convincing symptoms to the contrary arise, what were formerly called proxies and pawns have become truculent beasts that their former sponsors struggle to nudge and push around the Middle East chess board. Instead of player against player, black against white, it’s players against the board.
While Putin’s move is hard to match, the U.S. game is getting better. U.S. support for the Kurds in northern Iraq, possibly in contradiction of NATO spirit if not letter, is equivalent to thinking more than one move ahead:
- Support for the Kurds is essential to defeat ISIS.
- The irritation to Turkey is an affordable burden, to be patched up at a later time.
The Russians will be back. But they seem determined not to let the tail wag the dog.