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The Strategic Constants Behind the Russian Withdrawal

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 20/03/2016 Raghida Dergham

The strategic constants in the wake of Russia's military redeployment out of Syria include the following: First, the continuation of the US-Russian partnership in the Syrian arena, and its expansion into Yemen and Iraq where the remaining time Barack Obama has in the White House will be used to consolidate achievements in bilateral relations. Second, the regime in Syria has been given a new lease on life, though through state institutions rather than by clinging to certain individuals in their posts, while opening the door to radical changes in the equation of power. For example, the army command, rather than the presidency, could be given to an Alawite. Third, maintaining a long-term strategic relationship with Iran, but with the expansion of the policies of rapprochement with the Arab Gulf countries, Egypt, and Algeria to ensure balance in Russian relations with Sunni Arabs, so that Moscow does not appear like an exclusive ally to the Shiites in Iran. Fourthly, making way for Sunni forces to intervene on the ground in the war against ISIS and similar terrorist groups, as the boots on the ground in the international anti-ISIS alliance, which could be developed to become under joint US-Russian leadership in the region, including in Syria. Fifthly, fortifying the Russian interior and Russia's neighbors against any possible retaliatory attacks resulting from Moscow's continued spearheading of the war on Sunni extremism in alliance with Tehran-backed Shiite militias - which explains the Russian decision to avoid becoming further implicated in the Syrian quagmire. Sixthly, strengthening Russia's position in the global scene as an essential power in decision-making. Moscow will not accept to be bypassed anymore. Seventhly, containing economic repercussions on Russia if it continues its comprehensive intervention in Syria without an exit strategy, bearing in mind that the value of the ruble has been declining in a way that hurt the economy and that oil and gas prices have been falling drastically. Eighthly, taking advantage of available opportunities through reconciliations and settlements, in order to secure investments, open markets, and sell arms to the Gulf states. And ninthly, Russia gains a foothold in the Middle East in Syria's strategic bases, which will also be a foothold near the shores of Europe and NATO.
President Putin's decision reconfigured his intervention in Syria through a gradual and partial withdrawal of his forces there, amid negotiations, escalation, and talk of federalism in Syria. The decision came as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced Moscow had evidence of Turkish military presence inside Syria, and as Moscow was warning Ankara should it continue to transport arms into Syria. It also came in the wake of a visit by the Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu to Tehran and his meeting with President Hassan Rohani amid talk of Iranian mediation between Russia and Turkey in exchange for Turkish mediation to improve Saudi-Iranian relations.
Putin's announcement of his strategy of the Middle East coincided with increasing US - Russian coordination in Yemeni affairs, with indications they both agree to the priority of protecting Saudi national security along the Saudi-Yemeni border with mutual guarantees, including their influence on Tehran to prevent it from sending advisors and militias to Yemen as it had done in Syria.
Russian diplomacy is keen for the upcoming visit by Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz to Moscow to succeed, and become the key to better relations with Riyadh and other capitals of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Russia wants to build on what was achieved during the recent visit by the emir of Qatar to Russia, which also tackled the future of gas, Russia, Qatar, and Iran being the world's top exporters. The visit also tackled the Turkish-Qatari traditional support for the Muslim Brotherhood as opposed to Moscow's utter hostility to this group's rise to power in any Arab or Muslim country, most importantly Syria. Russian diplomacy has made it clear to Gulf diplomacy that it is prepared to turn the page on the hostility towards its previous policy in Syria, in return for active cooperation in crushing terror group and preventing the rise of fundamentalist groups to power. The statement by veteran diplomat Sergei Lavrov praising Saudi efforts in facilitating the formation of a serious opposition grouping is but one example of the kind of developments that have taken place in Russian thinking and policy.
Not long ago, Russian diplomacy was criticizing Saudi diplomacy for pushing the parties of the Syrian opposition to create the High Negotiations Commission (HNC), as tasked by the Vienna process to settle the Syrian conflict. Moscow was trying to force Syrian oppositionists into the list agreed upon in Riyadh, and was escalating on issues like defining who is an oppositionist and who is a terrorist in Syria. Suddenly, Lavrov praised Saudi efforts after the opposition delegation arrived in Geneva to handle negotiations brokered by UN envoy Staffan de Mistura with the regime - though Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said talking about the future of Assad was a red line and the head of the regime delegation Bashar al-Jaafari said Damascus rejects any discussion of a "transitional phase."
These statements were tantamount to an obituary for the Vienna process, which is considered the legitimate offspring of Russian diplomacy. This was preceded by positions made by Damascus that annoyed Moscow, which saw them as undermining the credibility of Russian policy: Russia failed to stop barrel bombs, and was surprised by Damascus's announcement it would hold parliamentary elections that conflict with the timetable of the Vienna process, which requires elections to be held within 18 months after a new constitution is drafted and a political transition is negotiated.
All this obstruction coming from Damascus sought to prolong Russia's military intervention until Bashar al-Assad's agenda is implemented. But Vladimir Putin did not want to play that game. The Russian president has indeed rescued Assad by intervening in Syria more than six months ago. However, Putin did not want to be involved militarily in Syria for more than four months. His intervention was coupled with an exit strategy, and he did not want to slip into a quagmire in Syria that the West perhaps wished him to fall into, as he believes. Second, the mainstay of Russian military intervention in Syria are the strategic interests there represented in military bases and state institutions led by the army, and not keeping one man in power.
This does not mean, however, that Putin is prepared to abandon Assad or turn the table against him. In reality, Assad remains important in Putin's calculations. Realism suggests that Putin's US-style pragmatism makes him willing to abandon Assad ins his long-term strategy, if needed. True, Putin is keen on having a reputation of loyalty to his allies against the opposite reputation the US has, but the man fully understands the language of interests and deals.
And because Putin's legacy in the countries where he intervened militarily is a legacy of partition, some fear this would be his legacy in Syria. However, geopolitical reality could prevent partition in Syria in the full sense. Rather, the federal model could be pursued, a model adopted by the US, Russia, and Switzerland albeit in different modes of implementation.
What matters to Putin is what US policy towards him will be like after Barack Obama leaves the White House, and how his relations with Europe would evolve in light of the sanctions imposed on Russia over its meddling in Ukraine. Putin is also concerned about what it is going to take to save the Russian economy, which has paid a high price for Putin's military and diplomatic adventures. Other questions include how terrorist Islamic groups can be defeated, and how he would benefit from his strategic foothold in Syria, with implications for both the Middle Est and NATO.
Vladimir Putin is a practical man. He is relying on Donald Trump because he is an arbitrary man to the point of farce. However, Putin realizes the dangers of arbitrary thinking, and he does not trust the US establishment whether it endorses this candidate or fights that candidate. True, Trump appears as if he is an anti-establishment candidate, but he could also be the product of the establishment for a specific purpose. Most probably, Hillary Clinton will become the next US president with support from the establishment. Putin is concerned about what Hillary, a veteran politician, may be carrying to the White House. Especially so when Hillary probably remembers how she was tricked by Lavrov, who upended the Geneva Communique, before Lavrov made sure to facilitate success for her successor Kerry, making her appear as a failure.
Regardless of the history of US-Russian relations at the start of Barack Obama's term, the current partnership between Russia and the US on Syria and Iran is crucial. It is a radical change in the relationship between the two countries, and in their respective relationship with key players in the Middle East region.
It is clear that Barack Obama has had tense relations with Arab countries, from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, and that he has prioritized the relationship with the Iran yet without daring to have this be at the expense of the Israeli ally. Obama started out his term by endorsing the Turkish model for changing Arab regimes, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen. He waged warfare through drones, which destroy others without returning coffins to the US carrying the bodies of American soldiers. He withdrew America from others' wars. He paved the way for Russia, Iran, and militias - as well as terrorists from all around the world - to join the battles but far away from American cities. He fought all these wars with others' men and materiel, fulfilling the American desire to do so and helping the US economy recover through military industries and arms exports.
Barack Obama showed Putin an America that is old and infirm, unable and unwilling to be the world's leader, and suggesting to Putin that there is a vacuum for him to fill. Putin pounced on the opportunity. However, it is now time now for Putin to curb Russia's dash, because the fine print in the US invitation to Russia contains a plot to implicate it in a quagmire that reverses Russian gains made under Obama. This is why Russia has made its recent move.
The Russian rectification would be beneficial if other parties involved in the Syrian war learn from it, especially Hezbollah. Iran is aware of the meanings and implications of Russian strategic decisions, and is in turn engaged in developing strategies for exit and for remaining. The player outside these calculations is Hezbollah, which is not yet aware of the implications of its involvement in Syria and Yemen while others are taking steps back. Perhaps the best thing Hezbollah can do for itself and Lebanon is to develop an exit strategy from Syria. An exit strategy is not foolish; it is greatly prudent.

Translated by Karim Traboulsi

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