Has Putin outsmarted Obama in Syria?
WASHINGTON - Russian President Vladimir Putin is playing chess while everyone else is playing for time. On March 14th, Putin made a master move in announcing the withdrawal of the “main parts” of his forces from Syria and the world was caught by surprise.
But nobody should have been.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said: “Russia did not give direct advance notice of this decision to the United States.” And when US President Barack Obama called Putin after the announcement, the White House clarified that it was a “previously scheduled” conversation to discuss Syria and Ukraine.
The focus in Washington was on how to read Putin’s move and its strategic implications for the United States and Russia. Observers see “incompatible visions” of the world in Obama’s and Putin’s approaches to Syria.
Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations think-tank, wrote in the Los Angeles Times that “there is no doubt who is winning. From Crimea to Syria, Putin is rewriting the rules of the international game in his favour”.
Hussein Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute, a Washington-based think-tank, concurred, writing: “Russia has at least somewhat managed to shape the strategic landscape in Syria and the US has not, although their capabilities on paper are not comparable.”
Others concluded that Putin took the measure of the Obama administration and determined that he could act with impunity.
All they had to do is look at what Putin and his defence and foreign ministers said during the Russian president’s withdrawal announcement to see that Russia views its Syria move as a strategic achievement. It was a “Mission Accomplished” moment that was not lost on anyone who has heard the Obama administration warn of the “slippery slope” and “quagmire” that was Russia’s Syria policy.
In fact, Putin took the acceptable risk and got out unscathed.
US Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and critic of Obama’s policies on Syria and Ukraine, never bought the administration’s line. McCain said in a statement that Russia’s withdrawal signalled that Putin had bombed and killed enough people to ensure the survival of the Assad regime.
McCain accused the US administration of “rationalising its indifference and inaction while (Syrian President Bashar) Assad slaughtered nearly half a million people in Syria, by saying that Russia would find itself in a quagmire”.
The senator said Russia and “its proxies” have changed the military facts on the ground and “created terms for a political solution more favourable to their interests”. He also predicted the Syrian conflict will “grind on”.
Obama has a different philosophy. He said Putin’s military involvement in Syria and Ukraine “does not make him a player. Real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence”. He noted that in Group of 20 (G20) meetings Putin is not seen “setting the agenda on any of the issues that are important”.
Obama’s critics counter that while Russia may not have the power to shape the G20 agenda, it is shaping the situation in Syria and Ukraine and dictating the outcome.
Two years ago, US Secretary of State John Kerry argued that the United States and its allies should change Assad’s calculations by changing the reality in Syria to force him to the negotiating table. However, it turns out it was Putin who changed the calculations in Syria. He changed the situation by bombing not the Islamic State (ISIS) but the moderate opposition that is supported by the United States.
The Russians, the Assad regime and its allies have the upper hand and this will be reflected at the negotiating table.
Putin said exactly that during his announcement. He said his forces had transformed the situation and created “conditions for the start of the peace process”. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov mentioned the “unwillingness of all of our partners” to work with them on their proposal “but from the moment of the start of operations by our air forces the situation began to change”.
The Russians made a point of saying they are working with the United States on the Geneva peace process, making Putin the “player” that Washington observers say he wants to be.
How will this be translated in the Geneva negotiations? Many experts in Washington say the Russians have the upper hand, which is bad news for the Syrian opposition and people.
Obama says the Middle East is not “fixable”. Will he let Putin try his hand at it while he watches from his balcony and “pivots to Asia”? Perhaps. Does this mean the region will live in a Pax Rossiya? Few observers see that as likely.