Even the most ardent opponent of Russia’s president Vladimir Putin must concede he has been something of a master strategist over Syria. Mr Putin’s decision to intervene so directly in the Syrian civil war last autumn caught the international community by surprise. His decision on Monday to pull out his troops was equally unexpected.
In the six months in between, he has transformed the conflict – and his country’s political fortunes. Today, Syria remains in the midst of a ceasefire, unknown in the five years of conflict. In Damascus, Bashar Al Assad is not only more secure than he has been for years, but also the parliamentary election that is just beginning shows the population he remains in control.
On the international stage, Russia is now the indispensable nation in Syria. When Mr Putin talks to the leaders of the West, it is clear he has the upper hand – only he has genuine leverage. He is especially indispensable to the Assad regime.
All of this has come at a high price for Syrians. The Russian bombardment of the past few months has mainly targeted the rebels fighting the regime – now the main supply line to their stronghold in Aleppo has been cut. Worse, with Mr Al Assad returning to a strong position, the fighting is only likely to intensify, as the regime seeks to press its advantage, along with the collective punishment that the regime will certainly inflict on rebel fighters and rebel areas alike.
Nor is Mr Putin going anywhere. Russia’s main bases on the Mediterranean will remain and the country will keep a military presence. If the conflict does not continue in Mr Al Assad’s favour, doubtless the Russians would step back in.
That is why the cautious optimism among some of the rebels is misplaced: Russia is not deserting Mr Al Assad. On the contrary, Russia’s move serves the regime politically, because it allows it to claim that Mr Al Assad is a leader unencumbered by foreign backers. Already, Damascus is taking that line.
More than anything, Mr Putin’s move shows how utterly devoid of a clear strategy the international community is, and has been for years. Mr Putin has managed to make tactical gains, while leaving his Middle Eastern and European opponents to deal with the worst of the refugee crisis. Outside of the presidential palace in Damascus, few will be smiling today.