In Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 1, Julius Caesar is stabbed by Brutus and seven other conspirators [13 total in the real historical event] on 15 March 44 BC. The conspirators killed Caesar because they felt that he had become too powerful when, after defeating Pompey in Egypt, he was named Dictator Perpetuo [English: “Dictator in Perpetuity”] by the Roman Senate. However, his assassination brought about three civil wars and, eventually, the end of the Roman Republic.
On 15 March 2016, just five months after committing Russian ground and air combat units to the fighting in Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that his forces will be leaving that embattled country in the coming months.
Putin made the announcement on the fifth anniversary of the start of the civil war in Syria … and on the same day that peace talks began in Syria to end the conflict.
Clearly, the wily Russian president chose this date as way of telling the world that he had achieve in just five months what the United States could not achieve in five years: namely, victory in Syria and an end to the fighting.
It is also clear that he chose this date because of its literary and historical significance as the day when Julius Caesar was killed.
Putin’s decision to terminate Russian combat operations in Syria’s civil war was doubtless made in recognition that there was little to be gained and much to lose with a prolonged involvement in that savage conflict. Getting out now, before the situation deteriorated into the proverbial bloody quagmire, allows Putin to put a positive spin on the whole adventure.
And with good reason. Although Russian military personnel are departing, they are leaving behind a veritable treasure trove of weapons and equipment for Assad’s army. This large cache includes tanks, armored personnel carriers, warplanes, tons of ammunition and, perhaps most significantly, advanced antiaircraft weaponry. If after taking office in January of 2017 the new POTUS decides to establish a no-fly zone in Syria, he will encounter a great deal of resistance from his senior military commanders, who will tell him that the surface -to-air missiles available to Syrian forces will turn the skies over Syria into a graveyard for patrolling warplanes and their crew.
What this means, of course, is that President Putin has “won” this round in the Middle East, and perhaps many rounds to come, by obviating the possibility of effective American military action in the region.
It also means that President Putin’s puppet, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, will remain in power in Syria for the foreseeable future. Like a chess grand master toying with an inferior opponent, Putin has checked the United States at every level of the game–strategic, operational, and tactical. Are there any moves left for the U.S. to make, or has America been checkmated in the Middle East?
It would seem so. President Putin’s success is America’s failure. The U.S. is failing to achieve its objective of ousting Bashar Al-Assad and bringing about the partition of Syria into a federalized state. As a result, it is also failing, yet again, its Kurdish and Arab Sunni allies in the region. The Muslim Kurds and the Arab Sunnis have long dreamed of grabbing up the territories of Syria, and many have fought and died and otherwise suffered mightily in that dream’s pursuit. But now their dream is turning into a nightmare and for that they blame the United States.
When Russia went into Syria, Russian President Putin asked the United States to help his forces take Al-Raqqa. There could be no good answer to this question. It was a “damned if we did and damned if we didn’t” situation. If we had said yes, the U.S. would have been blamed for taking the kill shot against the Islamic State. But we said no. In doing so we have shifted the burden of taking of Al-Raqqa, and thereby destroying the Islamic State, to our Sunni allies in the region–particularly Saudi Arabia.
Here’s the “damned if you don’t part.” If it falls to Saudi to take Al-Raqqa, Saudi forces will have to pass through Jordan to reach the Islamic State’s capital. But Jordan is a fragile state that may well prove unable to withstand pressures of war that the presence and combat operations of a foreign (i.e. Saudi) army will surely bring to it.
What’s more, Turkey will be subjected to similar pressures. How will it respond? It may support the Saudis; it may oppose them. If it decides on the latter, Turkey will become an enemy of Saudi Arabia and end up fighting Saudi forces in Syria.
If this happens, Russia will have turned Saudi and Turkey (both allies of the U.S., both Sunni-dominated states) against each other and possibly accomplished the destruction of Jordan in the bargain. What’s more, the ability of the United State to influence the course of events in the Middle East will have been drastically diminished. We lose; Russia wins. Check … and checkmate.
And so, returning to the story of Julius Caesar, we see that Brutus and his fellow conspirators succeeded in killing Caesar–but to what end? In eliminating what they judged to be the principle threat to the Republic they caused civil war and much bloodshed that not incidentally claimed the own lives as well. The Republic was destroyed and replace by the principate, which was in turn replaced by the rule of emperors. The emperors endeavored to preserve the illusion of a “republic,” but no one was fooled: the Republic was dead. Thus, Brutus and his fellow brought about the very outcome they sought to forestall, i.e. the downfall of republican government and the institution of autocratic rule.
Now, who is Caesar in the Syrian scenario? And does Caesar know that he is Caesar? Do the conspirators know who they are in Syria? Or does it matter to the directors of the play given at the end; these actors will all end up dead, just like their Roman predecessors, and regardless of their ethnicity and religion.