By David L. Phillips
Vladimir Putin maintains that Russian forces are withdrawing from the frontline with Ukraine. He made similar claims of withdrawing Russian troops from Syria, which were also untrue. As NATO calibrates its response to Russia’s aggression, Western leaders must judge Putin by what he does – not what he says.
On March 14, 2016, Putin announced that Russia had achieved its objectives and Russian forces would withdraw from Syria. Russian engagement turned the tide of Syria’s civil war in favor of Bashar al-Assad, and terrorism was defeated. Instead of folding his tent, Putin doubled down by increasing Russia’s military and economic cooperation with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.
Again, he reaffirmed plans to withdraw Russian forces the following year on December 10, 2017. As some Russian troops pulled back, they were replaced by Russian-financed mercenaries with the Wagner Group. Russia provided relentless air power.
Russian envoys were meanwhile negotiating a 49-year lease agreement for military bases in Tartus and Latakia. The Tartus naval air station provides Russia with a warm water port in the Mediterranean. The Hmeimim air force base in Latakia Province is a staging ground for Russian offensive operations.
Russia will be in Syria for the long haul. Moreover, its footprint is expanding across the region. Russia is looking to explore oil fields in Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. Putin also has his eye on an oil storage facility at the Tripoli port, 30 kilometers from the Syrian border and 60 kilometers from Tartus.
Putin is masterful at linking military force to the Kremlin’s political goals. Russia was suffering from biting sanctions after invading Crimea in 2014. When the UN assumed responsibility to disarm Syria of its biological and chemical weapons (CW), Russia became irreplaceable to arms control. Ridding Syria of CW bolstered Russia’s global importance, preventing its international isolation. Making Assad a partner in disarming Syria helped preserve his heinous regime.
Putin was duplicitous from the beginning. He declared Russia’s war on terror during an address at the UN General Assembly in 2015. Instead of targeting terror groups, Russian airstrikes prioritized mainstream rebel fighters and civilians. Purporting to fight Islamist extremism was a lifeline to Assad.
Learning from Syria, the West must verify Russia’s recent claims of de-escalation. Benchmarks and a timetable for de-escalation should be set. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, of which Russia is a member, could establish the monitoring mechanism drawing on satellite imagery and human intelligence.
Until Russia’s troop pullback from the Ukrainian border can be verified, the West should remain poised to apply comprehensive sanctions. Certification for Nord Stream 2, which is critical to Russia’s economy, should be suspended. Instead of de-escalating, Russia added 7,000 troops to its deployment the same day Putin announced a pullback.
Putin’s actions in Syria demonstrate how he dissembles and misleads to achieve geo-strategic objectives. The West failed to prevent Russia from expanding its role in Syria. It must be steely-eyed and resolute when confronting Russia’s warmongering towards Ukraine.
Mr. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peacebuilding and Human Rights at Columbia University. He served as a Senior Adviser and Foreign Affairs Expert at the State Department during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations.