It is not enough to declare your victory. It remains incomplete if the other side does not announce its defeat. Often, it only takes a small jab to remind a heavyweight boxer that the fight did not end with a knockout and that the staggering adversary was still capable of ruining the party and causing injury.
It is likely that Vladimir Putin felt bitter when he received the reports. The drone wave that targeted his forces’ bases in Hmeimim and Tartus was annoying and embarrassing. A handful of drones, operated by regular technology, managed to confuse the Russians. Such a small operation is not enough to change the rules of the game, but it helped reveal that the fortress can be breached and flaws can be found in the mighty Russian military system. A minor incident exposed the weakness of the measures taken by the major power. The message is clear and it is that the war is not over yet.
Russia exonerated Turkey from the incident. It is difficult to imagine that Turkey would at the moment embark on such an adventure. It paid a heavy price in the past when one of its pilots dared to challenge a Russian jet. It was forced to change its policy and choices.
Moscow tried to imply that the drone operation was backed by the US, but Washington was quick to categorically deny it. Some speculate that an opposition faction wanted to remind Russia that the war was still on and open to many more rounds, despite the change in the balance of power brought about by Moscow’s military intervention.
The worst part of the incident was that it took place less than a month after Putin declared his victory in Syria. He believed that the mission was complete and started to withdraw some of his forces. The regional and international scene appeared rosy to the czar and there was no counter-project in Syria. The majority of regional and international forces dealt with the Russian solution as a fait accompli. Many powers also believed the Russian solution to be the only realistic way to curb Iran’s role. The US itself seemed ready to accept the Russian success in Syria if it served to limit Iran’s role.
Putin was not worried about the upcoming March presidential elections, which in reality is nothing more than a referendum given that he has no real competitor running against him. He however was deliberate in announcing the victory in order to prop up his image of a skilled leader. Syria did not become his Vietnam. At the lowest possible cost, he succeeded in orchestrating a major reversal that restored Russia’s dignity and standing. All this has taken place at a time when the US has been embroiled in Twitter wars, Angela Merkel is struggling to form a government and Theresa May is laboring with the divorce from the European Union.
Sometimes, a surprise comes when you least expect it. A handful of drones reignited the debate over the obstacles hindering the real Russian victory in Syria. The real victory is when you protect your field wins with a permanent political solution that allows you to seriously say that the war is over.
The reality says that the Russian solution in Syria is no cakewalk. The calculations being weighed at the Astana talks that include Russia, Iran and Turkey contrast with each other. Iran, for example, believes itself to be a main partner in the victory that was achieved in Syria. It believes that the Russian air force could not have changed the course of the war without the role the Iran-backed militias had played on the ground. Turkey has other interests in mind. Its main concern is to deal a fatal blow to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has given the YPG in Afrin a week to surrender or face his forces. More than that, Turkey had demanded that Russia and Iran fulfill their past commitments over the Syrian regime violations in “de-escalation” zones, especially in Idlib. Iran, meanwhile, accepts nothing less than the Assad regime being restored to what it was before the war. Turkey has absolutely no interest in seeing that happen.
Russia has an actual interest in appearing as the peacemaker in Syria. It does not want to stay in a country that is witnessing an endless war. It is however finding difficulty in providing even the most basic conditions for a solution that appears rather superficial. The regime that had during the most difficult times of the war never shown an inclination to make concessions is unlikely to do so now when the worst is behind it. The regime can at any rate occasionally rely on the hardline Iranian stance or at least use it as an excuse. It is no secret that a solution that redistributes power, even proportionally, among all players will not in the long-term be in Iran’s interest.
Moscow has done all it has in its power to speed up imposing a solution in Syria. It exerted extraordinary efforts to deplete the essence of the Geneva peace talks. It also exerted extraordinary efforts to impose changes within the opposition body involved in the negotiations. The recent days revealed however the extent of the challenges facing Moscow. The United Nations has not shied away from voicing its opposition to the Sochi talks and attempts to undermine Geneva. Washington itself appears to be backtracking and adopting a more hardline approach, even if at this point this stance is limited to rejecting any solution in Syria that favors Iran. The Europeans appear to be more inclined to confront Iran’s destabilizing policies, despite their commitment to their nuclear deal with it. Israel, meanwhile, appears to be more skeptical than ever of Russia’s ability to stave off Iran-backed militias from its border and has therefore intensified its air strikes in Syria.
Clearest of all is Russia’s growing difficulty in finding a middle ground between the demands of regional and international players in Syria. The lowering of the expectations over the Russian solution may pave the way for other options that may prolong the war, which ISIS’ defeat demonstrated was much more complicated than many previously expected. Reaching the final victory in Syria is difficult. As long as a political solution is missing, each military victory will remain vulnerable.
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