The New Old School
The unexpected Russian withdrawal from Syria was a calculated move by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and may be seen as supporting the idea that there is an alternative approach to American Middle East interventionism. In October of 2015 President Obama said that Russia's involvement in Syria would get it stuck in a "quagmire" and that "it wouldn't work". Unlike the US's multiple engagements in the region, Russia went into Syria with clear stated goals, effectively put ISIS on the defensive, while not becoming bogged down as Obama predicted. This kind of success has, in a sense, shown up Washington, left Putin with political leverage, and now allows him to market Russia as an alternative to the largely nation-destabilizing model of American interventionism. Internally besieged governments such as Assad’s Syria don't need the assistance of occupiers, especially those that have proved incapable of stemming a terrorist threat. Putin, for his part, isn't backing Syria out of any ideological reasons as Washington would have one believe, but purely due to geopolitical factors that would ensure the security of the Russian Federation.
Despite the scope of the withdrawal, it is important to note that the Kremlin isn't abandoning the Assad government. Though 3000-6000 Russian troops have left, the Russian Aerospace Forces have continued their air campaign against the terrorists. Just recently, Russian Aerospace jets pounded ISIS positions in the ancient city of Palmyra and were instrumental to its eventual liberation. Palmyra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, known for having some of the greatest treasures of antiquity anywhere in the world. Under ISIS, the jihadists destroyed countless monuments to the ancient peoples of the Middle East, including the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel, the Arch of Triumph, and used the Roman-era amphitheater for filmed public executions. Now the city, which had been occupied by jihadists since last May, has been recaptured by the Syrian Arab Army and is currently being demined by Russian experts. The Palmyra operation was a win-win for Putin.
Could this type of military assistance be a harbinger of things to come re Putin and Russia’s decisions for future engagements in the region that might counter American unipolarity? One of the telling aspects of the Russian effort in Syria is how it has proven to the world its new capability in waging well thought out and disciplined missions a good distance from home. Will such a success become its calling card, as well as entrée, in other parts of the globe? Especially in places where the U.S. has overthrown stable governments "in the name of democracy," only to leave chaos and the ruination of nations in its wake? Russia, in this light, may be rightly perceived as a kind of guardian for the sovereignty and integrity of the traditional nation-state.
Evidence of this approach can already be seen in the intensive, partisan and, more importantly, non-military efforts Russia (and Sergey Lavrov, in particular) has made on Syria’s behalf in the diplomatic realm, for which the recent withdrawal was ostensibly directed in order to foster a more beneficial negotiating climate. If peace talks are a success—again, it would be primarily due to the Russian intervention (which jumpstarted them) and then the Russian withdrawal (which goaded them forward). If they fail, Russia will still have achieved the goal of the stabilization of the Assad government, as well as Syrian state, by calculated and committed military means. Russia’s newfound image, moreover, as a superpower resurgent may even afford it a stronger bargaining position regarding a conflict much closer to home in Ukraine, which, via Crimea, has triggered substantial western sanctions against Moscow.
It is not unheard of to suggest that these two conflicts, Syria and Ukraine, are linked not only in the Russian geopolitical mind, but in closed door meetings at the highest level of international discussion. Some have argued that a ‘grand bargain’ may have occurred in which Putin has agreed to reduce his Syrian force for an ultimate, not-too-far-off easing of sanctions. In fact, this pressure may have even come from Germany in the form of Angela Merkel, the embattled head of state responsible for much of the refugee crisis in Europe. The refugee crisis, some say, could be or have been exploited by Russia to create division in Europe. By being persuaded to withdraw troops from Syria, thereby pressuring Assad to soften his stance in the peace talks, Russia can help mitigate the flow of refugees from Syria to the European Union. As a point in fact, the Italian and Hungarian foreign ministers have met with Sergey Lavrov in an attempt to come to some type of agreement about sanctions, as well.
Szijjártó made this statement soon after his meeting with Lavrov, which leads to believe a new openness regarding the cessation of sanctions isn’t entirely unthinkable. The vote to uphold the EU sanctions must be unanimous, so if Russia can sway only one EU member such as Hungary to vote against their renewal, that would be a major diplomatic victory for Moscow. This would be a game-changer, for sure. But Russia and Putin are in this for the long game. They are using nicely-tailored (thus far) military engagement, old school principles (the UN Charter) and a mix of soft power and diplomatic finesse, to become something that hasn't existed in over twenty-five years—a power near equal to the American hegemon on the world stage.