Increasingly, it appears that Russian military involvement in the Syrian conflict is part of a broader strategy by Russia President Vladimir Putin to deflect attention away from Ukraine and the problems facing the Russian economy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual news conference in Moscow on Dec. 17. Photo: AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin had a difficult time at the traditional year-end annual news conference. Even pro-government journalists asked a lot of hard questions, and the President struggled with sensible responses. A post-conference fact check showed that Putin, to put it mildly, was carried away by wishful thinking, especially when speaking of the economy and domestic affairs. Nonetheless, the three-hour-long conference provided insight into the President's decision to launch a military operation in Syria and his strategy in the Middle East.
For a very different take raed: "Putin's press conference: A modest rapprochement with the West?"
Putin did not say anything directly about his goals and motives, but the general context and the issues that the President emphasized allow for fairly straightforward conclusions.
In order to understand Putin's motives, it suffices to understand that if there had been no Russian military air campaign in Syria in 2015, at the news conference the President would have had to speak of recession, corruption, and the Novorossiya project in Eastern Ukraine. Such a scenario would have been truly alarming, and no charisma or signature jokes would have saved the Russian President from a heavy blow to his reputation because he cannot come up with any good answers to these questions.
At the actual news conference though, unpleasant issues were overshadowed by the reports of Russian military success and, what is more important, a growing understanding between Moscow and Washington on the resolution of the Syrian conflict. Of course, the Kremlin thought of this back in September, when the decision about involvement in Syria was finalized.
It is also telling that Putin hardly mentioned the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and international terrorism. He only alluded to it in the context of Russia-Turkey and Russia-U.S. relations, but not as a separate issue.
All this indicates that Putin started the operation in Syria not because international terrorism reached new heights and Russia's involvement was urgently required, but due to the critical condition of Russian politics and economics and the President's abnormally high rating being in jeopardy. Thus, Moscow had to play its last big card - its particularly close relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad - and get involved “at the Syrian leadership's request.”
It has been several months since the beginning of the operation, and the strategic context has shifted for Russia. It is clear that the strikes did not eradicate ISIS, and the Syrian army has not had any major breakthroughs in its fight against the opposition. On top of that, Russia now has a very strenuous relationship with Turkey, which brought down the Russian bomber jet that violated its air space.
However, the lack of progress was compensated by what Moscow refers to as "the breach of international isolation" (even though several months ago it was widely claimed that there was no isolation anyway). Global leaders are consulting with Putin, and Russia has the final say in the conflict resolution in Syria.
Putin covered these aspects in great detail at the news conference. Some of his responses bore the features of a true revelation. For example, he suddenly shared his thoughts on the need for a permanent base in Syria.
"Some people in Russia believe that we must have a base there," he said. "I am not so sure... I spoke with my European colleagues, and they told me that I was probably nurturing such ideas. I asked, 'Why?' And they said, 'So that you can control things there.' And why would we want to control everything there? ...So why would we need a base there? Should we need to reach somebody, we do not need a base for that."
Back when Putin just became President, he actively closed old Soviet bases (including bases in Vietnam and Cuba), and in this context it becomes clear that his doubts about bases in Syria could be quite sincere. It appears that Putin understands the danger of being mired in the Syrian civil war and does not want his international asset to become a liability.
Moreover, the Russian President clearly hopes to make history as a wise politician who eluded the trap that that sprung for the U.S.S.R. in Afghanistan and got Americans in Vietnam and Iraq.
And it looks like he has his own plan of action. Here is what Putin said about negotiations between Assad and the opposition.
"When we see that the process of rapprochement has begun, and the Syrian army and Syrian authorities believe that the time has come to stop shooting and to start talking, this is when we stop being more Syrian than the Syrians themselves," he said.
Based on this statement, we can draw the conclusion that Putin strives to position the Russian operation in Syria as strictly auxiliary or close to being controlled by official Damascus. As a result, Assad, who invited Russia to take part in the fight against terrorists, can revoke the invitation when the issue is resolved. According to Putin, leaving Syria is quite simple.
"After all, what we have there today is our planes and temporary modules, which serve as a cafeteria and dormitories. We can pack up in a matter of two days, get everything aboard Antei transport planes and go home," he said.
As time goes by, the Russian leadership is increasingly emphasizing that “the resolution of the Syrian crisis” does not so much imply a victory over ISIS, but the beginning of a political process and negotiations between Assad and the opposition.
Based on what Putin said at the news conference, one can assume that a sustainable ceasefire in Syria will signify that Russian military bases in the country are no longer necessary. Also, that ISIS can be struck from warships.
In this context, Assad's future is of no great concern to the Kremlin anymore. If he needs to step down for the ceasefire to be effected, Moscow is not going to object. Although Putin did not say that explicitly, it could be read between the lines. The “Syrian card” has to be laid on the table yet again. This time not to demonstrate Russia's military might, but to show Putin's strategic genius.
Also read: "Key takeaways from Putin's annual press conference"
Assad stepping down can create a great background for Russia leaving Syria with its head held high, for that will signify that Moscow met all its military goals and provided diplomatic support for the political peace process.
A day after the news conference, the U.S. Security Council passed a resolution on Syria, which confirmed that Russia is trying to force its hand in order to collect a quick win. Moreover, the resolution of the Syrian conflict through the Security Council mechanisms and in close cooperation with the U.S. can be seen as a way to show Turkey its place by excluding it from the proceedings. For Putin, his own fate is getting more and more closely tied to the political resolution in Syria, so one can expect even more resolute moves from the Kremlin in the near future.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.