The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

A controlled military disentanglement, while bound to afford Putin even greater popularity at home and perhaps rebuild his popular image abroad, by no means implies that he is about to relinquish his growing influence in the Middle East.

President Vladimir Putin has announced a pullout of Russia’s military forces from Syria, where for two years they have been instrumental in maintaining Bashar Assad’s embattled regime. The declaration came following the Islamic State’s defeat and loss of almost all previously held territories.

With the self-proclaimed Caliphate degrading into a terrorist formation on the run, Russia declared its mission accomplished. “Indeed, the threat of terrorism, in general, is very high. The fact that we defeated one of its main groups – Daesh in Syria – is extremely important . . . for the whole world,” Putin said.

From September 2015 when he had ordered Russian warplanes to begin aerial bombardments of what Moscow defined as Syrian centers of “jihadi terror,” Putin emphasized that his primary objective was to fight the evil of terrorism, rather than to keep in power a tyrant who would cater to Russia’s interest in the Middle East.

One of these interests, of course, is Russia’s continued presence in the area, and thus there is little doubt that the announced disengagement from Syria will be partial at best. Putin has made similar announcements in the past, in March 2016, for example, which led to discussion in the press as to what Russia’s intentions might have been. But it is absolutely clear that its naval facility in Tartus and its air base in Hmeimim will remain fully operational.

Last week, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that Moscow had reached a new understanding with the Syrians for permanent Russian presence at the two military bases and for allowing Russia to keep 11 warships, including nuclear ones, at Syrian facilities.  The agreement renders Putin’s declaration about his forces’ withdrawal from Syria largely irrelevant, at least from the military viewpoint.

Putin’s announcement of departure from Syria may be a political move, aimed at improving his domestic ratings and his image abroad. The news about the anti-terrorist triumph in Syria is particularly timely given the upcoming presidential elections in Russia in the spring. The servicemen will be “returning home with victory” is a set phrase that Putin uses, alluding to the victory of the Second World War.  He is intimating that Russian armed forces be out of danger after the cessation of military operations in Syria, and that the state will no longer require billions for the on-going war efforts.

As far as the Russians are concerned, the main reason to celebrate, is that – atypically – their government had set out to attain an objective abroad and indeed did so without having made shameful blunders, incurring tremendous loss of life among their men, or provoking an avalanche of international condemnation. Equally important, Russia succeeded where the US – for all its lofty rhetoric and exaggerated threats against ISIS – failed.

Putin’s resolve to employ force paid off. With relatively little effort, Russia has increased its influence in the Middle East. In addition, his apparent commitment to “play hard” in Syria proved Moscow’s determination to shape events; and this is juxtaposed to Washington’s tangible reluctance to maintain a central role in the region.  Putin thus benefited indirectly from the self-inflicted weakening of the US position, gaining prestige at the expense of the Americans.  In Syria, the Russians would surely say, they “wiped the nose” of their chief rival.

The ways in which people perceive political phenomena may be no less consequential than actual experiences. Putin already has proven himself master of manipulating perceptions in his own country. He enjoys the popular image of a risk-taking, bare-chested macho who prefers heavy workouts to heavy drinking. Tasteless this undoubtedly is; but it has appeal in the eyes of millions of people in Putin’s country, where he is a national hero.

It may well be that Putin is aiming to be a real-life super-hero for the mass audiences in the West, which has had a chance to witness Putin’s resolve and roughness in handling terrorists in Syria. He has battled the dreadful ISIS – the arch-villain of the contemporary world. All others, including the boastful Americans, were reluctant, weak-spirited, and essentially toothless against the enemy. ISIS perished under the sword of the Russian “Superman.” Triumphant, the 21st century super-hero now turns to leave the battlefield, not seeking war spoils; composed, dignified, and cheered by the grateful people of the liberated land!

A controlled military disentanglement, while bound to afford Putin even greater popularity at home and perhaps rebuild his popular image abroad, by no means implies that he is about to relinquish his growing influence in the Middle East. He has already underscored that if the terrorists “lift up their head” in Syria, Russian forces will carry out strikes the likes of which “they’ve never seen.” This is less of a warning than a prediction. Putin will need a periodic affirmation of toughness to sustain his epic presence. To validate a perceived accomplishment with a next triumph is also a manifest feature of Russia’s national tradition.

Israel must learn to appreciate the pivotal traits of Russian political culture, including the need to compensate for perpetual insecurity. Such understanding is a prerequisite to any astute policy regarding the new situation in Syria and the Middle East, where we may yet witness sequels to the Russian super-hero’s adventures.

Dr. Anna Geifman teaches in the Department of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University.

JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.

 photo: BERLIN – NOVEMBER 12 2017: Protest action of the Syrian opposition near Brandenburg Gate against the Russian Army in Syria. credit:  Sergey Kohl, Bigstock