It’s “Mission Accomplished” for Putin Even Though Russia has Failed to Stop ISIS

Russia says it is withdrawing some of its military forces from Syria because their mission has been accomplished. It claimed from the outset that this mission was to “stop terrorism”. But terrorism has not been stopped and its main source, ISIS, is still where it was before the Russian bombardment of Syria began.

This failure to “defeat terrorism” (even if such a thing were possible) is unsurprising because Russia has not pursued many terrorists. Instead, it has concentrated on decimating the mainstream opposition to the Syrian regime, who were also fighting ISIS much harder and more effectively than were the government’s forces. The Russians have focused on bombing civilian areas, including hospitals, rather than ISIS targets. As a consequence, they have killed or sent fleeing many more ordinary people than jihadi extremists.

The reason for Russia’s failure to achieve its stated objective was that tackling terrorism was clearly not its real purpose in Syria. Its actual aim was widely perceived as being to prop up the fraternal dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. But even this explanation only scratches the surface of the self-interest underlying Russia’s intervention. Rather than saving Assad, the assault was more about preserving Russia’s own regime.

President Putin and his closest associates are terrified of losing power. They know that the colossal theft and murder of opponents they have carried out during their reign make a peaceful, prosecution-free retirement unlikely.

Putin’s KGB mindset also means that he does not believe people might have their own reasons for not wanting to live under a brutal and corrupt dictatorship. He sees any mass uprising against a fellow despot as a Western-inspired plot which could be replicated in Russia and must be countered.

If Russia is genuinely withdrawing from Syria, then it may be because it has concluded Assad cannot regain long-term control over the country he has destroyed, whatever support Russia provides. But, as in Ukraine, saving their man is not crucial for the Russian regime. If that cannot be achieved, Putin sees inflicting carnage as the next best way to discourage anti-dictator uprisings by others at home or abroad.

It remains to be seen whether Russia’s intervention in Syria has served Putin’s real objectives successfully in the long-run

This aim intersects with Russia’s second main driver for intervening in Syria - to re-establish itself as a global power. Forcing the world to give Russia a seat at the top table on the international stage is a more important end in itself for Putin than any particular outcomes. Putin needs to be seen as a significant world leader because he has become enormously dependent on rekindling the national pride lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union to bolster his domestic support. Syria was particularly useful in distracting attention from his government’s other failings. It may be mired in corruption, human rights abuses and chronic over-dependence on oil and gas exports at a time of low market prices. But at least it was able to showcase how it has upgraded some parts of Russia’s military from the dysfunctional mess it has been for the last few decades.

It remains to be seen whether Russia’s intervention in Syria has served Putin’s real objectives successfully in the long-run. A country that needs to bombard defenceless civilian targets to assert its importance is highlighting its insecurity and weakness as much as its strength. There are signs too that relying on jingoism to distract the Russian people from their government’s faults is becoming less effective. Increasing numbers of them are feeling the pain from Russia’s collapsing economy. Despite the propaganda onslaught to which they are subjected, more of them are starting to see Putin’s wars as another cause of their woes rather than an antidote to them.

It is possible that Putin realises this and will now seek an accommodation with the West over Syria and Ukraine in order to reduce the pressure of international sanctions. But it would be best not to bank on it.

More likely, and worryingly, Putin will be emboldened by what he sees as his success in Syria and inflict further unpleasant surprises on the world in an attempt to bolster his grip on power. The only way to deter more Russian aggression against other vulnerable countries is to increase the sanctions pressure on Putin and his associates. It should be made clear that this will be reduced only in return for a complete roll-back of his incursions and desisting from any further violent meddling.

If not, then others will suffer the same consequences of Putin’s attempts to attract attention as the Syrian people. “Burning Country”, Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami’s horrifying but outstanding account of the Syrian tragedy, concludes with the words “a people who dared to demand freedom received annihilation instead”. That is perhaps the only sense in which Putin and Russia can confidently claim “mission accomplished”.

More about the author

About the author

Paul Knott began his working life in a hut on Hull's King George Dock before globetrotting for two decades as an unlikely British envoy. His "instructive and funny" (Alan Johnson MP) book about his experiences, "The Accidental Diplomat", is out now.

He is also the Chief Foreign Correspondent for the Sabotage Times and contributes to publications such as The Telegraph, Forty-20 and When Saturday Comes.

All that travel has failed to shift Paul's inherited old Labour instincts.

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