Russia may be leaving Syria but Putin will have Assad’s back for a long, long time

Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared Moscow will soon be pulling troops out of Syria. And there’s no reason not to take him at his word.

The Russian strongman says they can start drawing down troops because they’ve pretty well achieved everything they wanted to accomplish with military action. It’s hard to argue with that claim.

Putin’s primary goal was to keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from being driven into the sea. It would have been a disaster if the Kremlin’s southern flank lost Damascus and Syria’s key Mediterranean ports.

There seems little risk of that now. Moscow’s military might seems to have turned the tide in Syria’s ongoing civil war.

Putin has made a diplomatic success of the situation as well.  Against all odds, he has managed to make Syria’s genocidal, chemical-weapons-using president acceptable to most of the international community. Nobody talks about throwing the bum out anymore. Nor does Assad need fear the prospect of finding himself in the dock in the International Criminal Court anytime soon. Whether the peace process endures or not, Assad will stick around Damascus for the foreseeable future.

This is good news for Putin. He can claim “mission accomplished” and bring the boys back home. That always makes you more popular on the domestic front.

It also gives Putin more flexibility abroad, allowing him to shift his attention elsewhere, for his next act of mischief.

Doubtless Putin will also claim that, in Syria, he struck a blow against terrorism—though that one is more than a bit of a stretch. ISIS is still standing strong. Refugees are pressing the gates of Europe.

But none of that is his problem. Putin was always in this just for Putin. Any assessment that holds otherwise is delusional or was funded by the Kremlin.

Even as he backs out of Syria, Putin looks stronger in the region. Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to appear as a lost babe in the woods of a Middle East meltdown

And, it’s important to note, Putin’s not talking about a total withdrawal. Russia will retain a military footprint in Syria, just as it has in Croatia. And that residual force can be useful for destabilizing as well as stabilizing purposes.

While the drawdown has begun, the fact of the matter is that Putin will have Assad’s back for a long, long time. And that will leave the rest of the Arab world mired in a mess.

James Jay Carafano is vice president of foreign and defense policy studies  The Heritage Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @JJCarafano.

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