Another Lesson from Moscow Washington Won’t Learn

When the announcement of a partial withdrawal was made I was as surprised as anyone. I thought: Daesh is not been defeated, the threat of Ankara doing something extraordinary has not disappeared, the Syrian Army still needs air support to liberate other parts of the country, I can’t believe that Putin trusts either Washington’s promises or its ability to fulfil them. I then went on the Presidential website and found this: “In this context, Mr Putin said that Russia’s Armed Forces have fulfilled their main mission in Syria and a timetable for the withdrawal of the Aerospace Forces’ main air grouping has been agreed.” A timetable is not the same as withdrawal, I thought. But then it transpired that aircraft were in fact leaving and the formal meeting of Putin, Shoygu and Lavrov was published. So, think again: the schedule was for the present and not the future.

I think we now know three things. 1) Not all the Russian aircraft are leaving, in fact large-scale strikes against Daesh positions near Palmyra occurred yesterday. 2) Strikes are possible from outside Syria. We have seen the use of long-range aviation from Russia and cruise missiles from the Caspian and Mediterranean. 3) Russian aircraft can be moved back in under 24 hours if needed.

At the beginning of the operation, the strategic purposes were laid out. 1) To shore up government power lest a vacuum be formed that Daesh would occupy (vide the US-NATO disasters in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya). 2) To create the possibility for meaningful negotiations on Syria’s future. 3) To reverse Daesh’s record of constant expansion and victory. 4) To kill as many jihadists originating from Russia and the FUSSR as possible so they don’t come home. Other benefits, like exposing the hollowness of the “isolated” and “powerless” Russia memes, showing off and testing weapons systems were present; they were not, however, as important as Western commentators thought they were.

From an operational perspective, there were four tasks. 1) To secure the airbase and freedom of operation (an issue complicated but not derailed when Turkey ambushed a Russian aircraft). 2) To degrade Daesh’s infrastructure by destroying troop concentrations, headquarters, arms dumps and, especially, crippling its cash cow, the oil trade. 3) To provide close air support to Syrian and allied forces. 4) To re-equip and train Syrian forces.

It is quite true that “The objective set before the Defence Ministry and the Armed Forces is generally fulfilled” . Задача, поставленная перед Министерством обороны и Вооружёнными Силами, в целом выполнена. Not all of it, but most of it. Strategically: the Syrian government is much more secure; negotiations are underway together with a ceasefire; Daesh is in reverse; many jihadists will not be coming home. Operationally: the bases are secure; Daesh’s infrastructure and oil business have been severely degraded; close air support continues and will for some time. “Generally fulfilled” indeed. Or, as NATO says, in private, “efficient and accurate”.

And, should the situation on the ground be reversed, Russian airpower can return in hours.

This is the third time Moscow has shown Washington how to use armed force. It is never something to be used alone, it must always be part of a complete package. We saw this in the second Chechen war, in the Ossetian war and now in Syria. Bayonets are useful for many things, but not for sleeping on. However, it is unlikely that Washington will learn anything: the alcoholic binge of more violence to solve the problems the violence created is too well entrenched. In fact, they can’t understand, as Fort Rus points out, that to more thoughtful planners “withdrawal” is not a candy-coating of “defeat”.

It’s because a funny thing happened along the way in the development of US foreign policy lingo. The term ‘defeat’ was replaced with the term ‘withdrawal’. This happened as a result of needing to soft-sell major defeats like Vietnam or Iraq. Defeats were re-branded as ‘withdrawals’, even though in doing so, the term withdrawal was forever changed into a synonym for defeat, and a lack of resolve.

Many Western responses are amusing. Here Chatham House fearlessly demolishes a straw horse: 3. ‘Mission accomplished’ is a bit of a stretch… 4. Nonetheless, the intervention has achieved several key Russian objectives. Of course Putin didn’t say “mission accomplished”; this contortionist invents it so he can pretend that he failed.

Some are just incoherent: “Moscow is thus is committed to ‘monitoring’ the very agreement that it’s been opportunistically breaching…“.

But so far I find this the most amusing example of someone not getting it. “A Well-Timed Retreat: Russia Pulls Back From Syria” by Alexander Baunov. Two samples will show how absurd his thoughts are:

President Putin’s announcement that he is pulling back from Syria should not have come as a big surprise. He believes he has met most of his goals there—many of which have nothing to do with Syria itself. Russia has found a way back to the table where the world’s board of directors sits and resolves regional conflicts together.

This time, Vladimir Putin did not need to pretend too hard when he announced that a mission was accomplished.


On the Russian domestic scene, which some experts had considered the main reason for Russia to get involved, interest in Syria had begun to wane among the home television audience. The pictures of silver rockets in a blue sky had been shown so often that there was no mood for a second season of them. The public would rather see successes on the home front.

Too many Americans (“some experts”) comment from Gulliver’s Island of Laputa and tie their imaginations into contortions. Read what Putin says, watch what he does and think about it. Don’t assume.

Or you can join Samantha Power in Laputa: she “doesn’t make it a point of listening to President Putin’s claims” (Here at 2:39) but is always ready to tell us what’s really going on: “Russia’s military deployment in Syria to back Bashar al-Assad ‘is not a winning strategy,’ America’s ambassador to the United Nations said Monday.