Putin’s Endgame

Graham Wilson
It comes as no surprise to many that last week President Putin announced that Russia would begin offensive action in Syria in support of his key regional ally, Bashar Assad, under the guise of joining the fight against ISIS. Indeed many are wondering why it has taken Mr Putin this long to weigh in given the threat to the region’s stability, Russia’s own assets there and the involvement of Iran, a long time friend of the Russian regime. Some sources cite complications in Ukraine and the fiscal punishment meted out by the West on Russia’s fragile economy as reasons for the delay in Russian intervention however this journalist sees things otherwise.

In my opinion Mr Putin has been biding his time, to suggest that Syria has not been a subject of intense discussion in the Kremlin for the last four years would be ridiculous, particularly given that the crisis in Syria has been rumbling on for considerably longer then the Ukrainian civil war, which has only now reached its second year. Of course the developments in Eastern Europe and Russia’s economic stand off with the West will have been influencing factors on Mr Putin’s decision making but Russia’s entry into one of the messiest wars of the twenty first century has been carefully calculated to make the maximum impact, not only on the ground but in news reports from Moscow to Washington. Rest assured, this is no headfirst dive into a conflict such the NATO intervention in Libya. Unlike Messrs Cameron and Hollande, Putin knows exactly what he’s doing in Syria and knows exactly what he intends to do with the country when he’s finished.

Of course it could be argued that the Russian President is entering the war unencumbered with the democratic and ethical baggage that Britain, the USA and France were saddled with both in Libya and Iraq and that this makes his job considerably easier. Victory for the West in the Arab world means installing a fully functioning secular democracy based on European principles in a state used to religious and dictatorial rule supported by considerable state control. It is not tricky to spot the complications that this would cause.  Putin on the other hand has no intention of upsetting the status quo and if he did, it would merely involve the replacement of Assad with another military strong man, ostensibly from an Alawite Shi’a background to ensure the continuation of the regime and pro-Russian sentiment. Put plainly, Putin is on home turf here. The same old tricks that have been practised to perfection in Moscow will work in Damascus. As demonstrated in Donetsk and Luhansk Putin is an expert poker player and his skills of misdirection have already been used to effect in Syria. One only has to contrast the official reports of the Russian military claiming they are solely targeting ISIL positions with the evidence of airstrikes on moderate groups and the West’s subsequent reluctance to challenge this blindingly obvious lie to know that Putin doesn’t need to have a full house in this game, all he needs is a couple of cards and the ability to lie through his teeth.

Mr Putin’s motives too are abundantly clear. Just as we saw in Ukraine Putin’s objectives are two fold. First he must protect Russia’s assets, namely the survival of a Moscow friendly regime and the naval base at Tartus. Parallels with the fall of the Yanukovych government in Kiev and annexation of Crimea, with its important port of Sevastopol spring to mind immediately. The second objective is demonstrate to Russians and Westerners alike that Russia will continue to reassert itself on the global stage. The sheer propaganda value to the Kremlin of Russia jets joining the fight against ISIL does not need explanation. We’ve seen this before in Chechnya and once again it serves to demonstrate that Putin learns from his past experiences, a lesson Western leaders are yet to take heed of. Not only that but to the untrained observer it demonstrates that despite the endless sanctions, the shunning of the international community, and the strain of economic and political strife the Putin regime is able to shrug off all these concerns and launch further military operations in a completely different theatre. Without a serious challenge both at home and at the UN it displays an illusion of strength which has yet to be seriously tested and only serves to prolong Putin’s iron grip on Russian politics. If, as reports are suggesting, Russian boots are now on the ground it looks like it will be only a matter of time until we see the Russian army acting side by side with Assad’s troops. Combined with the force of the Iranian backed militias ISIL and Al Nusra will be forced to concede defeat, with the former fleeing to Iraq where they will cause yet more trouble for the infant government there.  With a Russian ground presence in Syria, President Obama cannot seriously think that the USA will have a say in the formation of a post war state. With the American elections looming this is a problem for the next presidency, not his. This however is all conjecture. One thing is for certain though; Syria is for the West to lose and for Putin to gain.

Graham Wilson

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