Maybe Putin’s Telling the Truth About Winning Syria

Only suckers take the Russian president’s word at face value, but it’s hard to deny his intervention likely saved Bashar al-Assad—and that was always the goal.

03.15.16 4:01 AM ET

The war in Syria that the Russian government denied it was starting, then swore it was prosecuting against ISIS and “terrorists,” has suddenly been won and will come to an expeditious end, beginning today. Vladimir Putin, the man who said that local “volunteers” seized Crimea and who still disclaims any Russian military involvement in east Ukraine, asks to be taken at his word that he’s had enough of bombing the Middle East.

The difficulty in parsing any major Kremlin announcement lies in chivvying the kernel of verifiable truth out of the carapace of lies and disinformation it typically comes wrapped in. Already I see enough loopholes and caveats in Putin’s meekly delivered “mission accomplished” declaration to qualify it as just another misdirection, one the Western media has again abetted by editorially framing what Putin says as a fait accompli.

In a way, though, the more depressing thought is that the Russian president is actually sincere this time. He may well be winding down a short intervention because he’s accomplished exactly what he set out to do, and the next move is sending his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, to do what he does best: run circles around John Kerry in Switzerland.

According to a carefully phrased readout on the Russian presidential administration website, Putin called Bashar al-Assad on Monday and the two “agreed” that Russia’s six-month air war has “brought about a real turnabout in the fight against the terrorists in Syria, throwing their infrastructure into disarray and causing them substantial damage.” But Russia isn’t skedaddling categorically from the Levant; it will “maintain an aviation support centre in Syria in order to monitor compliance with the ceasefire,” and of course retain its longstanding and reportedly refurbished naval resupply base at Tartus. Translation: It can still bomb as needed or desired.

To begin with, the infrastructure thrown into “disarray” because of Russian aerial bombardment has been schools, markets, and hospitals, which Amnesty International believes the Russian air force has “deliberately and systematically” targeted. (Russian state media denies these hospitals even exist, which I suppose they don’t now, properly speaking.) The war has indeed caused substantial damage but not to terrorists. Civilians have borne the brunt of the devastation; 600 of them were killed and 120,000 of them scattered internally or externally throughout the provinces of Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo during a late-October offensive, designed only to shore up the Assad regime’s weakening frontline positions and regain lost ground. That push was then dwarfed by a late February escalation during which, by the Russia’s defense ministry’s own admission, some 900 bombs were dropped within the space of 72 hours in Aleppo, where Iranian proxies have been able to encircle the opposition’s longest-held geo-strategic terrain and cut their supply lines. Seventy thousand Syrian refugees, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said, consequently fled from the Aleppo countryside to the Turkish border. Wild guess, but perhaps the reason that NATO Supreme Allied Commander Philip Breedlove recently accused Russia of “weaponizing” Syria’s worsening refugee crisis is that it has made more Syrian refugees to overwhelm NATO.

Also pulverized during the last half-year have been the barracks, weapons depots, and soldiers of the Free Syrian Army, including 39 factions that have been fitfully armed and supported by the Central Intelligence Agency. True, some of these groups have even taken out one or two Russian officers, using American-supplied TOW anti-tank missiles, no less. But the dirty war in Ukraine has demonstrated that Putin’s tolerance for absorbing plausibly deniable fatalities in murky foreign adventures is much higher than what U.S. spooks intend, or are authorized to inflict on his army in Syria. One doesn’t have to believe Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s exaggerated claim that Russia has won back 10,000 square kilometers for Damascus to know that the rebels have taken a beating from the Russians, especially in their citadel of Aleppo.

The same cannot be said for ISIS, the putative enemy of Moscow. It’s only been struck between 10 to 20 percent of the time, say U.S. officials, a fact even remarked upon in grimly hilarious fashion by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s own media department. In the November issue of its propaganda rag Dabiq, ISIS took lurid pleasure in the spectacle of the “drunken brown bear… savagely but clumsily” bombing everywhere but where ISIS had a significant presence, typically the “Sahwah allies of America.” (Sahwah means “awakening” in Arabic, as in the al-Anbar kind that defeated ISIS’s predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq.) How strange that ISIS doesn’t seem to think Russia has been going after ISIS.

As to the “ceasefire” in question, technically a “cessation of hostilities” applicable to all parties except ISIS and the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra, Russia is more than a signatory on this tenuous agreement. It co-brokered the thing with the U.S. and is now acting as the diplomatic guarantor for the compliance of all pro-regime forces including the Syrian Arab Army, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, Lebanese Hezbollah, and a broad consortium of Syrian, Iraqi, and even Afghan militias. Remarkably, the hostilities are much reduced—by 80 to 90 percent—though not exactly at an end. Russian and Syrian aerial sorties have continued, targeting villages where FSA units are in concentration in Homs, Aleppo, Idlib, and Latakia. Assad’s helicopters have also carried on dropping barrel bombs on Damascus.

Moscow is thus is committed to “monitoring” the very agreement that it’s been opportunistically breaching, with nary a State Department protest (though this possibly owes to Foggy Bottom’s hotline for reporting violations, which only recently acquired fluent Arabic speakers).

Fortifying Assad on the battlefield was always meant to keep him physically alive and politically immovable, making his ouster—long a nominal Western precondition for peace talks—a diplomatic non-starter. Well, no one now disputes that that objective has been achieved spectacularly. But consider, too, the other accomplishments made by Moscow, beginning with the most important: the commercial.

The Syria war was as much a mediated weapons and hardware expo as it was a client rescue mission.

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In October, Russian warships debuted the new Kalibr cruise missile, firing it across 900 miles of sea and land, across Iranian and Iraqi airspace (some of the missiles crash-landed in Iran, according to the Pentagon). But the display became a marquee event for Kremlin-run television, here acting as a multimedia brochure for Rosoboronexport, the Russian state arms dealer, which last year sold $15 billion in weapons to foreign purchasers.

The 45 or so fixed-wing aircraft deployed to Bassel al-Assad International Airport in Latakia, now a permanent Russian garrison and airbase on the Mediterranean, ranged from souped-up Soviet models to state-of-the-art killing machines. The Russian Air Force’s most modern ground attack jet, the Su-34, was showcased as a source of enormous national pride, with the state-owned outlet Sputnik reveling pornographically in the warplane’s ability to hunt “terrorists.” (The Su-34 was also documented cluster bombing populated areas, such as Hraytan, Aleppo.) Just before the New Year, Sergei Smirnov, the director of the Chkalov aviation factory, gave an interview with Vedomosti in which he said that Algeria, which has sought the purchase of the Su-32 export variant from Russia for the last eight years, recently made an official application to purchase the bombers from Rosoboronexport. Other potential buyers, according to “military expert” Igor Korotchenko, again hyping the Su-34 in Sputnik, are Vietnam, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Uganda, Nigeria, and Ethiopia.

Another sophisticated toy is the T-90 battle tank, examples of which have been spotted all over the Syrian battle space, at first guarding the Latakia airbase and now being driven by the Syrian army and Iranian-built Shia militias, such as Iraq’s Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous, which in 2007 killed five U.S. soldiers in Karbala. In late December, Algeria announced that it planned to buy its third tranche of T-90s. Iran now also wants them.

IHS Jane’s, a British defense intelligence firm, calculates that Russia has spent between $5 million and $7.5 million per day on the war in Syria. After 167 days, that comes to anywhere between $668 million and $1.25 billion. The Russian defense budget for 2015 was $50 billion; Rosoboronexport claimed on Dec. 30, 2015, that its arms exports amounted to $15.2 billion, a figure that will likely grow in 2016.

Last but not least, there has been the symbolic benefit for the Russian General Staff of watching as the U.S. waged a proxy war against itself. U.S. Central Command’s principal ground force against ISIS in northern Syria, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, have taken to attacking CIA-backed Sunni Arab rebels as the latter were pounded by Russia bombs. If Washington won’t protect its assets from its other assets, much less from Su-34s, then what creeping regime change does Putin truly have to fear?

Kremlin foreign policy is, somewhat reductively, said to be exclusively obsessed with deterring sinister and heedless Washington from plotting “coups” or waging destructive interventions against “stable” authoritarians, many of them Russian allies: first Saddam, then Gaddafi, then Yanukovych—never Assad. Yet it takes a very special breed of paranoiac, in March 2016, to fear conspiratorial American designs on Syria, a colorless foreign-backed revolution if ever there were one. The anti-Assad opposition has been turned into cannon fodder on the battlefield and reduced to begging its own superpower sponsor to fight its corner in European hotels.

Putin and his inner circle have recognized this obvious reality for years, whatever feverish innuendo they let loose to the contrary. They knew, for instance, that President Obama never wanted to enforce his own “red line” on the use of WMD in Syria. As one unnamed Russian diplomat told Gerard Araud, France’s ambassador to the United Nations after the latter threatened to disclose French intelligence about Assad’s chemical attacks in the months before the major one in Ghouta, Damascus: “Gerard, don’t embarrass the Americans.”

President Obama’s much-scrutinized interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg was, if nothing else, a startling admission that the commander-in-chief views the 21st century’s gravest humanitarian catastrophe as, at worst, a legacy-spoiling inconvenience and, at best, an opportunity to test his bold hypothesis that a Sunni-Shia “equilibrium” can be inaugurated in the Middle East by reducing America’s involvement there, which per force means tacitly certifying Iranian interests at the expense of those of traditional allies, namely Saudi Arabia. Obama has euphemistically couched this volte-face on 37 years of Islamic Republic containment as forcing two regional powers to “share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace,” as if the devastating (and largely forgotten) war in Yemen were a prelude to therapeutic breakthrough between two mutually reviled sectarians rather than a curtain-raiser on a new and improved era of proxy conflict. Obama has also more than hinted to Goldberg of being more sympathetic to the Iranians than he is to the “free-rider” Saudis, a prejudice that has not gone unnoticed in Riyadh and will have only been greeted encouragingly in Moscow. Recall that it was the Quds Force commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s consent, who traveled to Moscow to prevail upon Putin to intervene in Syria in the first place. (Not that this has stopped Russia from making overtures to the Saudis as the more reliable and trustworthy partner for conducting regional business.)

If, as the old Clausewitz cliche runs, war is merely continuation of politics by other means, then why should Putin waste any more of his contracting GDP on gravity bombs and bullets when his enemy is already furthering his policy, cost-free?