by Dr. Mordechai Kedar
There is a consistent pattern in Russia's behavior; one just has to look for it.
People who are not familiar with Russian culture have always had difficulty understanding Putin's behavior in general, and his decision to withdraw Russian forces from Syria is especially unfathomable to them. A close examination of Russian actions in Ukraine and Syria, however, reveals something about the way Putin plans his moves. In both of those areas there are two opposing sides, one that Russia supports and one that Russia is against, and in both places Russian involvement followed the same pattern: a powerful burst of action for a short span of time that gives the "right" side a much needed stimulus and an exit that leaves the arena ready for the two sides to fight it out without Russia getting bogged down in the mess they have created.
In Ukraine, Russia supported the Russian separatists by giving them weapons and arms and by its unilateral annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. The separatists, after receiving their stimulus package from Putin, are continuing the struggle against the Ukraine government by themselves. In Syria, Moscow arrived on the scene a second before Assad's army would have collapsed and began bombing mercilessly without differentiating between terrorist organizations, soldiers and civilians, thereby turning the tactical situation in Assad's favor. Now Russia is leaving it to him and his other friends – Iran and Hezbollah – to continue the bloodshed on their own.
From the start, Russia's goals in Syria were limited and concentrated on the rebel organizations and not on Islamic State, which by now controls close to 70% of Syrian territory, mainly sparsely populated desert located in the eastern part of the country. Most of the Russian bombings were intended for the rebel organizations, some supported by the West, that threatened Assad's government in the fertile, industrialized and populated western part of the country.
From the start it was clear that Russia had its own interests in mind, not Syria's, meaning that the objective was not to restore all of Syrian territory to Assad's control, but create an independent entity – an Alawite Emirate – in northwest Syria, on the Mediterranean coast and the northwestern mountain ranges, allowing Russia to use the ports located there – Latakia, Tartus and Banias – and the nearby airports for Russian military purposes.
The tactical situation Russia created over the past few months allows Assad to attend the Geneva Peace Conference from a position of strength, knowing at the same time that he must reach some sort of agreement with the opposition because the massive Russian aid he has been receiving is not going to continue for long. Putin has also intimated to Assad that his remaining in power is not really all that important to Russia. This is the reason the Russians made sure to film themselves flying some of their planes out of the country, taking along the equipment necessary for their use. They wanted Assad to see it happening and begin to take things seriously.
In addition to the message to Assad, there is a message here intended to reach other protagonists in the conflict. One is Iran and Hezbollah, to whom Putin is hinting that if they want to keep Assad in power, they will have to continue fighting and spilling their blood for his sake. This message became even more important when Iran took some of its forces out of Syria and Hezbollah sent some of its fighters to Yemen.
Putin thinks that Iran and Hezbollah hope to force him to place his infantry men on the ground in Syria, so that by removing his forces he is also showing them that not only has he no intentions of doing so, he is taking the fighters out of the country and placing the responsibility for keeping Assad's regime alive on the broad shoulders of Iran and Nasrallah.
Obama is another recipient of a message from Putin. So are the USA and Europe, who thought or at least, hoped, that Russia would do the dirty work for them and engage in an all out war to destroy Islamic State. This led them to put almost all the activity of the international coalition on hold, limiting it to actions aimed at officers and leaders of that organization. In removing his forces from Syria, Putin is telling the West that he does not intend to do anything serious to rid the world of Islamic State, and if Obama and his friends want to eradicate the Caliphate they will just have to begin acting seriously, intensively and efficiently – read that "putting boots on the ground" – before ISIS takes over more territory in the Middle East and exports its ideology and modus operandi to other places in the world, a la Paris and San Bernardino.
It stands to reason that the economic aspects of the operation dictated the lowering of Russia's profile in Syria, because Russia spent billions that it does not have to activate its army. Bombs, gasoline and spare parts are not cost free and have to be paid for by someone. The Russian treasury is currently facing many difficulties, mainly due to the lowered price of oil and gas, and it is quite possible that a secret deal between Russia and Saudi Arabia has been forged in which Russia will remove some of its forces from Syria in exchange for the Saudis allowing the price of oil to rise and encouraging the rebels to negotiate with Assad on the subject of Syria's future.
The possibility of a Saudi-Russian pact was raised as a result of a recent incident that could have had grave consequences for Russia: a shoulder missile downed a Syrian plane. This raised the possibility that someone – probably Saudi Arabia – purchased American, Chinese or European shoulder missiles and provided the rebels with them. This means that they could down Russian planes as well as Syrian ones in the future, capture their pilots and behead them on camera.
This scenario is unacceptable to Putin, although he knows that in the short term, Russian public opinion would demand revenge and increased activity against the rebels, but in the long term, Russia would sink into the Syrian mire, at the cost of many Russian soldiers' lives in addition to massive expenses. Afghanistan's scars are still carved deep in Moscow's collective memory, and Putin will do anything not to repeat that mistake.
In sum, one can say that Russia achieved its objectives in Syria: it has established its standing in the Syrian and Middle Eastern arenas, strengthened its presence in Syria's ports and air bases, improved Assad's forces tactical situation to the point where he and his Iranian and Lebanese allies to initiate an attack on the other side, and has given the West a broad hint as to what must be done to enemies: to wit, fight them unto death.
In contrast to the Americans and Europeans who usually feel responsible for conditions in a war area when they leave, Putin does not hesitate to become involved when there are crises, nor does he feel it a problem to leave while they are still bleeding, depending on how best he can serve Russia's interests. The West is surprised anew every time Russia behaves in that fashion, because the West thinks of solutions to crises as per the interests of local inhabitants. One can cast doubts on the morality of Russia's behavior, but there is no doubt that it serves the interests of Russia much better than the actions of the West serve its own countries.
Written for Arutz Sheva, translated from Hebrew by Rochel Sylvetsky, INN Op-ed and Judaism editor.
Dr. Mordechai Kedar
Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.