When Russia launched a military campaign in Syria two years ago, President Vladimir Putin sought to save his ally from imminent collapse and break Russia’s international isolation over a crisis in Ukraine.
He achieved that and more, emerging as a key stakeholder in the Middle East who has brokered deals with many of its key players — from Iran to Saudi Arabia to Turkey and Israel. It’s a regional footprint that comes with a degree of clout that even the Soviet Union, which depended on a handful of Arab allies, couldn’t dream of during the Cold War era.
And it was accomplished with limited resources and a lot of audacity.
“Vladimir Putin is determined to restore a greater role for Russia as a global power … and the Middle East is really the main area where Russia has that potential, in part because the Soviet Union played that role in the Soviet period,” said William Courtney, an adjunct senior fellow at RAND Corporation.
With just a few dozen jets and several thousand troops, Russia waded into Syria’s war and stubbornly pressed its campaign despite international scorn and an outcry over resulting civilian casualties.
Russia’s bold intervention in Syria came as the United States under president Barack Obama steered clear of military engagement and found itself in a series of acrimonious disputes with key allies, including Israel and Saudi Arabia. Under the vastly inconsistent policies of Donald Trump, and in an era of an inward looking, America-first US policy, Russia’s maneuvers became all the more poignant on the global stage.
Putin’s success in the region was on full display Monday, with the confident and upbeat leader moving between Syria, Egypt and Turkey in a whirlwind tour a week after announcing he will seek re-election for another six-year term in March.
Putin’s approach paid off in Syria, where he managed to play on the conflicting interests of regional powers and strike deals with various players.
When Putin decided to intervene in Syria, President Bashar Assad was on the verge of collapse, his forces losing on all fronts. Within weeks, the Russian military had airlifted supplies needed to set up a base in Assad’s heartland and launched an air campaign at the end of September 2015.
...the Syrian campaign suddenly saw a different Russian military — one armed with sophisticated precision weapons, well-trained, neatly dressed and proud of its mission.
“Putin managed to explain to the Russian people why Syria was important and not only did he explain it, he also showed them Syria wasn’t going to be Afghanistan,” Dmitry Trenin, director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, told The Associated Press.
The war saw the combat debut of an array of Russian weapons, including long-range cruise missiles that were fired from surface navy ships, submarines and bombers.
The display of Moscow’s revamped arsenals also served another key goal — to show the US and its NATO allies that Russia no longer exclusively relies on nuclear weapons. The new cruise missiles gave Putin a long-sought long-range precision cruise capability that only the US had before.
Russia also reached out to other key players — from Iran, which staunchly backed Assad, to the Saudis, the Qataris and others who supported the opposition. It also communicated with Israel to make sure the conflict didn’t hurt their friendly relationship.
While declaring victory in Syria, Putin made it clear Russia is there to stay. He plans to expand the air base and turn a crumbling Soviet-era naval supply facility in Syria’s port of Tartus into a full-fledged navy base capable of hosting big ships.
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