Putin’s Declaration of Victory in Syria Opens Door for Russian Strikes on ISIS in Libya

Suddenly the news of Russia negotiating the use of Egyptian bases makes a lot more sense

If Russia is declaring victory against ISIS in Syria and asking for military bases in Egypt it smells a lot like readying to strike ISIS in Libya

When a fortnight ago the Kremlin publicly ordered the Foreign Ministry to negotiate a deal for Russia’s air force to use Egyptian military bases, I conceded I did not know what this was about. I entertained the possibility it was a prelude to Russia’s military involvement in Libya, but then I said I don’t see that happening with Russia’s intervention in Syria still in full swing:

I admit that I honestly don’t know. Egypt is too far away to be directly useful to the Russian intervention in Syria. Use of Egyptian bases would be necessary if Moscow was planning to fight ISIS in Egypt’s Sinai or intervene in Libya, but I don’t see any signs Russia is interested in further adventures before Syria is wrapped up.

Well guess what? Putin has just declared a victory in Syria, stating the objectives of Russia’s intervention have largely been fulfilled and ordered a massive withdrawal that will see the majority of Russian forces evacuate the country:

Russian special forces, military police, sapper teams and 25 aircraft will now leave Syria, and the field hospital will be removed. Advisers, anti-air defenses and some aircraft will remain.

I was right that Putin would not want to be seen as increasing the scale and scope or Russia’s military interventionism abroad – especially just months before he faces re-election. What I did not foresee was that he would take the defeat of ISIS as an opportunity to declare victory in Syria and pull out most of his troops from there.

Seemingly never-ending foreign adventures are one thing. But having welcomed most of their troops back from Syria, the Russian public has visible proof these can and do end. The massive Syria drawdown Putin has ordered eliminates the key problem a Libya intervention would face — perception at home that Russia is getting bogged down in more and more never-ending foreign adventures. 

Also the fact that Moscow publicly announced it was negotiating to be granted the use of Egyptian military bases tells me two things:

  • The negotiations are a mere formality, and at most about settling technical issues. Russia already has assurances Egypt will sign on.
  • The Kremlin is floating a trial balloon and/or gradually preparing the public for something bigger it is considering.

Well what could that be? What would require Egyptian bases and the careful preparation and gauging of the pulse of the Russian public? Another military intervention would fit the bill.

In fact there are those who believe the Russian military already has a presence in western Egypt it uses to occasionally strike against ISIS in Libya the same way Egypt itself does. If that is the case, then the publicly announced negotiations about granting Russia access are merely kabuki to regularize a situation that already exists.

Moscow and Cairo have performed similar theater before. In 1972 Egypt’s Sadat and the USSR staged Egypt angrily expelling Soviet advisers. In fact the “expulsion” was planned together with the Soviet Union as a cover to discretely withdraw thousands of unacknowledged regular Soviet troops from Egypt. The actual advisers meanwhile stayed in Egypt until after the end of the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

In any case, it now seems clear to me Russia is at this time considering a non-covert military intervention in Libya, possibly to be announced after the March election. What we are seeing now is Kremlin laying the necessary groundwork for it, if it opts for one.

In October 2015 a Russian airliner was brought down by an ISIS bomb in Egypt, killing 224 Russians. Will Russia pursue ISIS as payback all the way into Libya?

Such an intervention would be much smaller in scale than the one in Syria, simply because ISIS is not as powerful in Libya. By withdrawing most of them after victory over ISIS, I think Putin has shown conclusively that he is not interested in having Russian military personnel fight all of Assad’s enemies (such as the US-backed SDF) and court increased confrontation with the US. ISIS, al-Qaeda and their respective allies are the only ones Russia feels justified in fighting directly in Syria.

Similarly I think Moscow has no interest in deciding the victor between the two rival governments in Libya, both of which it has contacts with, and at least one of which is NATO-backed. Instead it would be an intervention against ISIS and al-Qaeda-like groups alone. One that would be billed as “finishing the job” and not allowing ISIS central to relocate. And one that would again highlight the inconvenient fact that where the West sows chaos and destroys countries, Russia instead picks up the pieces and helps stabilize them.

Incidentally, immediately after Putin declared victory from the Russian airbase in Syria, he got on a plane and flew to…Egypt. The astute MK Bhradakumar thinks the trip is all about setting up something for Libya:

The point is, the ‘Libyan file’ has re-opened. The Islamist State is relocating in Libya after its crushing defeat in Iraq and Syria. Russia and Egypt sense the imperative need to mobilize quickly and confront the extremist groups in Libya. Both are supportive of the Libyan National Army commander Khalifa Haftar who’s ensconced in Benghazi, whom they (rightly) see as a bulwark against violent extremism in Libya.

The power vacuum in Libya and the growing insecurity in western Egypt threaten the stability of Egypt and President Sisi’s prestige is at stake. On the other hand, Egyptian involvement in Libya affects the balance of power in the Middle East. Interestingly, the Gulf monarchies are also involved in the Libyan crisis.

Prima facie, Moscow is deferring to the UN in key matters and is also engaging Sarraj’s government in Tripoli. Which suggests that Moscow may be positioning itself as a broker between Libya’s rival partners – Sarraj and Haftar, principally – and eventually to manoeuver itself to make up for the financial losses it suffered in 2011 following the regime change which is estimated to be in excess of $10 billion in railway contracts, construction projects, energy deals and arms sales.

Putin declaring victory and ordering a withdrawal at Russia’s Syria airbase yesterday