THE BLOG

This Russian 'Withdrawal' From Syria Is No Victory for the West

17/03/2016 10:49 GMT | Updated 17/03/2017 09:12 GMT

On Monday, Vladimir Putin announced to the world that his mission in Syria had been "accomplished" and that Russian forces will be partly withdrawn from Syria. The extent to which this genuinely represents a "withdrawal" will only become clear in the coming weeks.

If there is one fact we know to be true - it is that Putin should be judged solely on his actions, not on his statements. This is, after all, the Russian President who denied for over a year the presence of Russian forces in Crimea and who told the world his military action in Syria was not intended to help Assad deal with his opposition, but to attack and defeat Daesh. We now know he was lying to us all along.

After thousands of bombing runs and over 2000 civilian deaths later, he declares that the mission has been "accomplished", despite the fact that Daesh still infect vast swaths of Syria and Iraq.

So what was his real mission? It seems clear that Putin's real objective was to preserve a functioning Syrian state that is friendly to Russia. By all accounts, it seems this has succeeded. The Russian naval base at Tartus, a strategically important Mediterranean outpost, is secure. Putin meanwhile leaves the Daesh terrorists to do what they do best; terrorising civilians in Syria and Iraq and plotting more attacks in the West.

For the first time in many years, Russia has showed that it can operate in the Middle East region. Some Russian forces will of course remain, but Syria will be no quagmire for Putin. This is a pure projection of power. At the same time, his bloody Syrian adventures have strengthened Russian co-operation with Iran, a valued strategic and economic partner.

Putin's indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, in areas like Aleppo, led directly to a surge in the number of refugees leaving Syria. Given the failure of the EU's leaders to act with unity to deal with these influxes, the refugee crisis will continue to destabilise Europe for many months to come. This will please Putin greatly.

The right wing parties who have flourished across Europe, often ones with a penchant for the Kremlin, are now driving Europe's discourse. Even some pro- Brexit British conservative politicians, who should know better, are taking to twitter to praise Putin for his strong intervention in Syria. This is another victory for the Kremlin.

Of course, Putin's actions haven't solved anything in Syria itself. A political solution is still far away, hindered by the renewed strength of Assad, the complexity of the Kurdish issue and the proxy interests of regional powers. Is the world a safer place because of his intervention? If anything the region is less secure.

So how should the EU react to Putin's Syrian adventures? The biggest mistake we could make now would be to reward Russia for its destructive actions, by entering into a "constructive dialogue" with the Kremlin over the refugee crisis or the situation in Ukraine, as some have suggested. This truly would be the topping on the cake for Putin.

Of course, Putin wants us to spend time and resources analysing and trying to fathom his next moves, as he plans his. As Robert Greene alluded to in his book, The 48 Laws of Power; "People feel superior to the person whose actions they can predict". We can't predict what Putin will do next. Our only option is to adapt to the reality of this and try to re-gain the initiative.

Given the military weakness of the European Union and time-consuming US presidential elections, which will distract the US for many months to come, the reality is the EU must now get its act together and step up its ability to deal with these challenges.

This means that instead of relying on Turkey or Russia, it must quickly put in place its own border and coast guard, to regain control of the refugee crisis. It means progressively building integrated defence forces to strengthen our ability to project power and deter threats to our territory. Vitally, we must become much more pro-active and efficient at combatting Russian dis-information campaigns, which have become a weapon in the Kremlin´s hybrid war against the neighbours and the rest of Europe.

EU economic sanctions against Russia must be kept firmly in place. But we should now also work, in cooperation with the US, to prepare harsher sanctions - to make clear to Putin that further violations of international law and of agreed deals will have growing costs. These may be needed if the situation in Ukraine deteriorates further, or if Russia continues to fail to implement the UN Security Council Resolution backing the political process in Syria. The weakness of the Russian economy has always been Putin's Achilles heel.

It's time European nations woke up to the fact that our neighbourhood, once a ring of stability and security, is increasingly contested by a resurgent Russia; a nation led by a man who only respects brute strength.