As Russian President Vladimir Putin landed Monday morning at Khmeimim air base in Syria, the first person to greet him as he stepped onto the tarmac was a Russian military officer. Only then was he approached by Syrian President Bashar Assad, and together they walked down the runway, passing Russian bomber jets and attack helicopters.
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The message was clear. The first visit to Syria in seven years by a foreign leader wasn’t a regular state visit: Putin was there to inspect Russia’s latest outpost.
He may have taken the opportunity to announce that Russia is to begin withdrawing most of its troops from Syria. But that was mainly a statement for domestic consumption – back home, the idea of foreign wars isn’t very popular.
On the ground in Syria, though, the message was very different. Russia now has its permanent base in the Middle East, and just because the battle against the Islamic State is winding down, that doesn’t mean the Russian aircraft will be leaving anytime soon.
Putin’s short stop in Khmeimim, on his way to a longer visit to Cairo in Egypt and Ankara in Turkey, was very much a victory lap. Twenty-seven months since the Russian deployment to Syria began, no one has any illusions that, as far as the Kremlin is concerned, this has been a resounding success. There were expectations that this foreign intervention in a Mideast war would end in tears, as so many previous ones had. But not this time.
Questions were raised over whether Russia’s military – still undergoing a transition from its old and unwieldy Soviet Red Army version – could carry out a prolonged and long-range deployment of this scale. But despite a few mishaps, which included the smoke-shrouded arrival of the ineffective aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov last year, the modernized Russian army pulled it off.
Of course, this was nothing like the interventions of the United States and its allies in recent years. Putin’s aims were not to bring democracy and freedom to Syria. On the contrary, he set out to keep a blood-soaked dictator in place, and did so by indiscriminately bombing civilian targets that were held by rebel forces.
Putin plays by Moscow rules, and by those rules this has indeed been a resounding success. He has kept an ally in place, cemented a strategic regional alliance that includes Iran, ensured Russia has long-term rights for air and sea bases in the Mediterranean (Khmeimim and the port of Tartus) and established himself as the only world leader with real influence in the region.
Putin did all this despite Russia’s faltering economy, hit by plunging oil prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine, and despite the threat of Islamist terror attacks on Russian soil in retaliation. He did it because he identified a historic opportunity during the presidency of Barack Obama, with the United States in retreat from the region, to assert Russian power instead. Obama opened the door for Russia, and President Donald Trump is now keeping it wide open.
It is important to keep Putin’s achievement in focus. He hasn’t rebuilt Syria and has no intention of doing so. Unlike the United States, which poured hundreds of billions of dollars in civilian aid into Iraq and Afghanistan, Putin’s approach is a much more instrumental one. To the victor the spoils, and he certainly has no intention of picking up any tabs.
Syria will remain a ruined nation for decades to come, over half of its population uprooted and a quarter living outside the country as refugees. Putin never intended to save Syria, just the mass murderer who is still its president. For other countries in the region, including Israel, this means that for the time being at least, they have to deal with Putin regarding any postwar arrangements.
Absent from the ceremony at Khmeimim were Assad’s other patrons, the Iranians. But they are there to stay as well. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has already made clear that there is no obligation on the Russians or Iranians – who are both there “at the invitation” of the Syrian regime – to leave. And Russia, for the time being at least, is happy for Iran’s proxies, Hezbollah and other Shia militias, to provide the “boots on the ground” to continue pacifying the country, parts of which are still under rebel control.
As far as Israel is concerned, Putin seems willing to listen to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s concerns over Iran’s entrenchment in Syria. So far, though, he has yet to put any perceivable pressure on the Iranians, and there is no reason to believe he will.
On the other hand, no less significantly, Russia – which controls large parts of Syria’s airspace – has not tried to block, or even publicly condemn, the airstrikes on Hezbollah and Iranian targets in Syria that foreign media have attributed to Israel.
Interestingly, we’ve seen a scaling-down of Netanyahu’s rhetoric: from demands of no Iranian presence in Syria, to no Iranian bases, and now to no missile factories. Netanyahu has understood. Putin respects power and prefers making his real deals behind the scenes. In Syria, everyone must play now by Moscow rules.