Vladimir Putin is now in the Middle East, in what seems to be a victory visit, starting in Syria, where in a short 4 hour stay at the Russian air base, Khmeimim, in North West Syria, he declared victory over ISIS and the withdrawal of his armed forces from Syria back to Russia. He stated, that in less than two years, the Russian army, with that of Bashar Assad, destroyed one of the most dangerous ever terror organizations in the world, and now, Syria is liberated. Well, statements notwithstanding, reality now, and very likely in the future, will put it all in perspective. Victory pictures and speeches are a somewhat risky business, and Syria today is not in the stage of the beginning of the end of its troubles, maybe beyond the end of the beginning of them, but far, far away from a conclusion. So what is it all about?
In early October 1973, the Russian military personnel in both Syria and Egypt and their families were urgently evacuated from these countries, ahead of the war which started in a matter of 3 days. Clearly, the Russians then and there, knew what their Arab allies were planning to do, to start a war with Israel, so they did not want to be in the middle of it. Does Putin now also know something that others do not? Can it be, that he understands, that the Israeli repeated warnings against Iranian-Hizballah build up in Syria, which are also leading to frequent aerial attacks, can and will lead to a war in the near future? I cannot answer this one, but the fact is, that until now, there was a Russian-Israeli coordination about Israeli activity in Syria, and while the Russians publicly censored the Israeli aerial activity, their air defense systems in Syria did nothing to intercept and stop the Israeli activity. We shall know very soon, whether the Israelis interpret the Russian announcement as a green light to continue, probably intensify their activities, and how it can or not lead to an escalation with the Iranians and their allies. Putin did not give an exact time table for the withdrawal, but it seems logical, that what the Russians did not do while being in Syria in full force, they will not do when in retreat, even when they declare victory. Nor is it clear, whether they will leave behind a lot of their weapons for the use of the Iranians, Hizballah and Assad army, among them those weapons which the Israelis consider to be strategically dangerous to them.
Putin interestingly declared victory over ISIS, and this too begs some observations. ISIS , and this blog made it clear on occasions, was just one, and not necessarily the most important challenge to Syria’s stability and territorial integrity. It was one of these forces, and their very initial success emanated from what was already in place, which is the disintegration of the Syrian state, as the result of the sectarian Sunni-Alawite conflict. Yes, ISIS was and is a terror organization, and Putin is right about that, but ISIS was a foreign force in Syria, not based on popular local Sunni Syrian support, and their territorial gains were, for the most part, limited to the regions of North East Syria. It serves Putin’s propaganda purposes to talk about defeating terrorism, but Putin should remember, that while ISIS lost its territorial base in Syria, they can and will commits acts of terrorism. In Syria however, the REAL problem of Assad is, the Syrian people itself, most of the Sunnis who do not, did not and would not accept him. I suspect, that Putin knows that, and he can claim victory where victory was, rather than getting engaged in a protracted, endless war with the majority of the Syrian people. Putin did mention the need for a political solution in Syria, and specified the possible role of Turkey and Iran in achieving such a solution. These two countries do not share the same visions about a political solution in Syria, and while Turkey champions the Sunnis, Iran does the Shi’is, and after 7 years of these two sects fighting in Syria, the idea, that a solution is achievable is more a wishful thinking, much less a real prospect. There are unverified reports, that the nominal VP of Assad, the veteran, powerless, unpopular Sunni Ba’athi politician Farouq Al Shara will be the fig leaf provided to the Sunnis of Syria, as part of a transition from the Assad dictatorship to a democratic Syria. Really? To me it seems a fairy tale, but Putin in the Middle East is not at all a fairy tale.
He is in Egypt now, where he signed an agreement with President Abd Al Fattah Al Sisi to build a 30 BN$US peace-oriented nuclear reactor, and where Russia got the permission of the host country to use military bases there. Obama showed the cold shoulder to Sisi, and Putin is there to reap the fruits . Obama abandoned Syria, and that facilitated the Russian involvement there, and now its claim of victory. The Middle East is changing, but the Middle East continues to be so dangerous, a possible grave yard to grand designs. So, Vladimir Putin celebrates a victory, but victories in the Middle East can and tend to be short lived.