How a monstrous Putin beat the U.S. in Syria

By MAX BOOT

The entire world was surprised when, at the end of September 2015, Vladimir Putin suddenly started moving Russian aircraft, tanks and troops into Syria.

At the time, President Obama predicted the Russian intervention would fail.

“An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up [Syrian President Bashar] Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work,” Obama said.

This week, the world is equally dumbfounded by the Russian president’s announcement that he is withdrawing the “main part” of his forces in Syria. No one knows how big a part of the Russian military presence — consisting of some 4,000 troops and 50 combat aircraft — will return to the motherland or what exactly prompted this latest move.

Putin loves to spring surprises on the world, and that’s not hard to do when you are an absolute autocrat who doesn’t have to rally popular approval for your actions. Just as in the 1930s, it seems that today dictatorships act while democracies dither.

In his latest interview in the Atlantic with Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama tries to wave away what Putin has done in Syria and Ukraine: “The fact that he invades Crimea or is trying to prop up Assad doesn’t suddenly make him a player. You don’t see him in any of these meetings out here helping to shape the agenda. For that matter, there’s not a G20 meeting where the Russians set the agenda around any of the issues that are important.”

It’s telling that Obama thinks that the only thing that matters is the agenda at international gab-fests. That’s because the president, like most European heads of state, lives in a 21st century, post-power world where international law is more meaningful than brute force. Putin, by contrast, inhabits a 19th century, Realpolitik world where strongmen act to advance their own interests with scant regard for the feelings of other states, much less of multilateral institutions such as the G20 or the United Nations. In the clash between these two incompatible visions of the world, there is no doubt which one is winning: From Crimea to Syria, Putin is rewriting the rules of the international game in his favor.

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