Strategic slap to loyal states may now be seen by US and allies as way to bring vexing conflicts to a head.

The President of Russia may be presiding over a gangster economy, persecuting opponents financially and lethally, invading Crimea, destabilising Ukraine, supplying missiles to dimwits who shot down a passing airliner, but this week he displayed a piece of brilliant statecraft.

When we woke on Tuesday to the news he had decided to start withdrawing his forces from Syria immediately, he stunned the world.

Most important, it must have stunned Syria's despicable despot, Bashar al-Assad, who reportedly had little or no warning that his lifeline was about to be given a jerk.

Vladimir Putin evidently made the decision after a briefing from his military leaders on the ceasefire arranged last month, and from his diplomats on the peace talks under way in Geneva. Obviously, the generals told him the ceasefire was holding but Putin must have been less than impressed with the report on the attitude of Assad's emissaries at Geneva.


Western leaders and news services took a day or two to wonder aloud what Putin might be up to. The idea that a power broker would even hint at a willingness to abandon a recalcitrant client was unthinkable throughout the Cold War and has remained politically unthinkable in the West. Governments in vigorous democracies know their domestic opponents would portray a tactical withdrawal of a military commitment as an admission the original intervention was a mistake.

But Putin's move this week has forced a lot of people to revise their assessment of his decision six months ago.

I bet every Western leader was privately impressed with Putin's tactical agility.


The words "quagmire" and "Afghanistan" featured in Western commentaries and cartoons. We were less amused when his aircraft immediately set about bombing secular rebel factions, including some supported by the United States' air campaign, rather than the Islamic State. Now, suddenly, all those moves make sense. Assad was nearly on the ropes when Russia came to his rescue, which is why Putin can manipulate him now. But if Assad's regime had collapsed at that point, the multi-factional war would probably have been won by Islamists. The battle near Alleppo that brought the Russian intervention had been won largely by a Syrian affiliate of al-Qaeda.

By directing the bulk of his attack on secular rebels Putin forced them to accept a ceasefire, with help from US Secretary of State John Kerry, and ensured that the ceasefire could exclude the Islamists. Now he has given Assad the message that he expects a deal with the secular rebels, hopefully a new government that the US and Russia can support against Islamists and safe passage into exile for the regime that ended the Arab Spring five years ago this week.

Like every two-bit tyrant propped up by a powerful ally, Assad would have seen no need to placate his opponents. He would have expected Putin to treat him much as United States presidents treat Israel over West Bank settlements, for example. But Putin decided to dispense with polite diplomatic verbiage. An announcement of action, he decided, was the only language Assad would understand.

The fact that Putin was not withdrawing all his forces immediately would have been of no comfort to Assad. The sound of Putin announcing "mission accomplished" and the first of his aircraft returning with all the goose-stepping pomp and pageantry of success, meant they would need a very good reason to come back.

I bet every Western leader was privately impressed with Putin's tactical agility, even if they remain reluctant to acknowledge that he has embarrassed them at every turn in Syria over the past six months. He went in when the US and its allies were dithering over whether Assad or Isis was the lesser of two evils.

One would-be Western leader who has expressed a certain respect for Putin, long before this week, is Donald J. Trump. He was the only candidate in the early Republican debates to say he thinks Putin is somebody he could do a deal with. That is not Trump's usual approach. His attitude to most issues between America and other countries begins, "We'll make 'em ... "

More recently, he was also the only Republican to express a willingness to make another attempt to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. All his rivals at that point invoked the advice of Benjamin Netanyahu that any talk of reviving talks with the Palestinian Authority was pointless and unhelpful to Israel's security.

The unedifying prospect of a President Trump, which becomes more likely by the week, might not be all bad. Coming to office without the civilising influences of previous public positions, and without any debts to donors, he may be the candidate most capable of breaking the mould of superpower commitments.

How refreshing it would be if the US adopted Putin tactics at times. A well-timed shock from a powerful sponsor might resolve many a conflict that worries us all.

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