The Russians are going, but don’t bet your life on it. Russian President Vladimir Putin announced earlier this month that he would be withdrawing Russian troops from Syria in the near future, now that the tables have been turned on ISIS, and that the Islamists no longer pose an imminent threat to the Syrian and Iraqi regimes.
It is indeed a rarity to hear of Russians leaving a country where their military have “visited.” Traditionally when Russian soldiers arrive someplace they tend to stay and stay and stay some more. Just ask the Czechs, the Bulgarians, the Romanians, Lithuanians, Latvians, or Afghans or any of the other half-dozen Central Asian nations that either Russia or the Soviet Union had visited in recent history.
So to hear Mr. Putin say that the Russians are all going to leave Syria, and that without international pressure being exerted on Moscow is somewhat hard to believe. This is unlike anything we have seen in the past. Compare that to Crimea, which Russia annexed despite cries from the international community and the threats of retaliatory sanctions from the Americans and Europeans.
Following a meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad, Putin said Russian troops would shortly begin pulling out of Syria. But knowing just how badly Russia needs year-round access to deep water ports for it Mediterranean fleet, are they really going to get up and go? Answer is highly unlikely.
Read between the lines of what Putin said.
Indeed, the withdrawal from Syria is going to be a “partial” withdrawal, with the Russians maintain their two bases at Latakia ad Tartous — two deep water ports on the Mediterranean, something the Russians had been dreaming about for more than a century.
This is another victory for Putin over the Americans. The two countries have been at odds over the Middle East and have been vying for influence over the region. It’s the Game of Nations revisited, with the United States replacing Great Britain as the major power in the West. But Putin’s political ambitions come with the risk of reviving Cold War animosities, not solely with the US, but also with France, which is looking to reclaim its sphere of influence and pursue independent policies.
Russia’s ascendancy has been dramatic. Entering the Syrian war two years ago in support of a regime that everyone believed was on the brink of falling. Putin is pushing his agenda for a number of reasons.
First, there is the unmistakable issue of Putin’s ego. Putin’s motivations are likely as tied to domestic politics as to foreign ambitions. Putin is facing falling oil prices, a stagnating economy and public anger over corruption in government.
Putin is seeking a new world order shaped in his own new image of the former Soviet Union.
With President Trump busy tweeting, the US is absent from the Middle East political scene leaving the new comer French President Emmanuel Macron who seems determined to challenge Moscow’s dominance in the Middle East.