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Commentary & Opinion

Herbert London: The Russians Are Going

There was a Hollywood film of yesteryear with the title “The Russians Are Coming.” If one were making that film today it might be called “The Russians Are Going.” In a move that has surprised many in our State Department, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the withdrawal of the “main part” of the Russian military contingent from Syria. He noted that the principal tasks “for the armed forces were accomplished,” i.e. stabilizing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

There is no doubt Russian airpower pushed back rebel forces in key areas and reinforced the Shiite hold as Assad’s stronghold around the northern city of Aleppo. With settlement talks underway in Geneva, Putin believes a cease fire can be brokered with Assad affixed to the future of Syria and a U.S. team, left without any alternative, but accepting Assad. Keep in mind, President Obama on several occasions argued “Assad must go.” That refrain is a distant memory.

Some analysts have speculated that Assad was resisting Russian demands for a near term power sharing arrangement and long term constitutional reform. But, as I see it, this speculation enters the realm of wishful thinking. Assad is in the driver’s seat, firmly ensconced by the combination of Russian air power, Iranian military force and U.S. equivocation. Moreover, the Russian draw-down should not be considered a regional withdrawal. Russia will continue to maintain a presence in Syria with an airbase in Hmeimin and a naval base in Tartus.

Some contend the price tag associated with this military engagement was not worth the investment. Here too I would take exception. The relatively modest investment has given Russia a foothold in the Middle East and a key seat at the table during ceasefire deliberations. Moreover, the Russian initiative diminished the role and stature of the United States. Putin can assert “we stand by our allies.” It would be hard for President Obama to make the same claim to the Syrian rebels he once supported.

Others attempting to explain Russian motives contend that Putin wished to extricate himself from a Middle East quagmire. While there are pathologies in the region that won’t soon be resolved or even fully understood, it is precisely this confusion and the power vacuum created by U.S. withdrawal that allowed for the ease of Russian intervention. Mr. Putin has consolidated his alliance with Iran and by creating the illusion of “responsible” behavior through the draw-down of forces, he undoubtedly hopes to gain concessions from the U.S. and Europe on sanctions relief which had been imposed over the Russian invasion of Crimea.

Looking at this partial withdrawal of Russian forces dispassionately, it appears as if Putin has grabbed the mantle of moderation and is regarded as the stabilizing influence in Syria. This has been accomplished with a modest outlay of resources and without the loss of Russian lives.

The downside – if there is a downside – is that Putin’s strategy reinforced the Iranian goal of a Persian Crescent throughout the region. That condition could come back to haunt the Russians through Iranian influence in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan on Russian’s southern flank. An Iran with nuclear weapons and a missile delivery system is not only a threat to Israel and the Sunni nations, but to Russia as well. At the moment the Russian-Iranian alliance is intact because those states each benefit from the relationship. However, if history is any guide, Russians are nervous about Shia ambitions and Iranian religious views aren’t exactly compatible with the Russian Orthodox Church.

So the globe spins and the Middle East spins even faster than the rest of the world. Where it lands and when it lands is anyone’s guess, but these questions will surely confound for a lifetime, if not longer.

Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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