The silence from Western capitals as ISIS fled Palmyra was as deafening as it was understandable. In Syria, history has refused to follow the script.
On 2 October last year, US President Barack Obama warned that 'a military solution alone. . . an attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won't work.' Russia, he added, was acting 'not out of strength but out of weakness'.
Yet in military terms, Syria shows that Russia is stronger today than at any point since the Soviet collapse, capable of effectively deploying its armed forces beyond its immediate region in a way unimaginable after the close-run 2008 war with Georgia — a war on Russia's doorstep. It has saved the government of a rare and beleaguered ally that only six months ago looked dangerously close to collapse (Russia's weapons industry is also expecting a rush of new orders for its SU-34, the aircraft that has done the most of Russia's heavy-lifting in Syria, from governments impressed by its performance; a welcome development in Russia's present straitened economy).
Six months ago, the smoke had hardly cleared on Russia's first sorties when Western governments were accusing Russia of not bombing ISIS at all. In December, British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond alleged Russia was 'weakening the opposition and thus giving advantage to the very Daesh forces that they claim to be against'.
Now, by playing a crucial role in inflicting what may yet prove to be a decisive defeat for ISIS, Russia has not only refuted Western hawks, but also vindicated its diagnosis of ISIS as a symptom of the West's ill-conceived pursuit of 'regime change', elimination of which requires a counter-revolutionary reassertion of legitimate authority rather than the West's remedy of further revolution.
From Russia's victory at Palmyra also flows a certain retrospective vindication of its belief that beating back the Western-backed 'moderate rebels' to shore up Assad's Government was in fact a crucial part of building the conditions in which ISIS could be defeated. Moreover, by saving Assad and then pressing him to negotiate, Russia has played a crucial role in brokering that patchwork of cessation of hostilities agreements that has brought a measure of hope that a negotiated conclusion to Syria's five-year old civil war might year be achieved.
'There is no doubt', said US Secretary of State John Kerry in a visit to Moscow last Thursday, 'that the overall level of bombing and of shelling has decreased sharply, and that many people who had been living in constant fear for five years have at least achieved a small measure of relief.'
For Russia, however, the biggest gains have been political. [fold]
This was Kerry's third visit to Moscow in 10 months and his 18th meeting in that time with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. All but sidelined until autumn 2015 by the US-led coalition, Russia has taken just 182 days to make itself indispensable to the talks that will define Syria's future, co-chairing with the US the Geneva task force charged with achieving a lasting peace and, as all sides agree, an ultimate transition of power from Assad. The much wished-for 'political solution' at last seems realistically within reach.
The heightened pace of exchanges shows how far the Kremlin has succeeded in winning a new degree of serious and sustained attention to its interests from Washington, including Kerry's restatement of the US' support for the Minsk II process in Ukraine.
Ever since 1999 when NATO bombed Serbian forces in Kosovo, without consulting Moscow, Russia has resented the West's disregard for its interests. It's not an exaggeration to say that Russia's Syria strategy may yet take the world a step closer to that multipolar world order Moscow has been arguing for since Putin's 2007 Munich speech.
Certainly, the diplomatic tone has changed. 'John' and his new friend 'Sergei', it turns out, both play the guitar. Indeed, Kerry said discussions with the Kremlin had led to 'a better understanding of the decisions that President Putin has made of late and also of the path forward in Syria'. When he said 'we remain — Russia and the United States — committed to achieving a political solution', the plural was significant.
Western governments have long lamented the lack of transparency surrounding Putin's aims. But they're clear enough. The success of Putin's strategy in Syria will be measured in Moscow's success in asserting a right of consultation on issues of regional and global order where its interests are affected; not least in the Middle East where for almost 30 years the US has alone held sway. As late as 1991, George H W Bush took care to obtain Gorbachev's consent before launching operations against Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
'We all know that there have been some differences between the United States and Russia in these past years', Kerry concluded on Thursday, 'but it is precisely discussions like those that we had today that lead to a better set of outcomes. . .this is the way we work to deal with the most pressing issues that the world faces today.'
That may not amount to the multipolar world Russia says it seeks, but it is as good a description as any of the consultative diplomatic style Moscow in practice wants more of. As its cooperation over the Iran nuclear agreement has shown, Russia will work with Washington when its interests are respected. The goal is balance, not neo-imperial dominion.
It's said in Moscow that behind the Kremlin's decision to signal publicly 10 days ago the withdrawal of its forces from Syria is fear their continued presence has become an undue provocation to Turkey. Having reasserted its place at the table in Geneva, Russia wants to pocket its gains before Ankara finds the will, or the pretext, to use military means to try to reverse them. With Moscow formally winding down its operations, Ankara would struggle to justify an intervention to Washington.
If this is a correct reading of Russian strategy at this juncture (and it seems plausible), then as a tactician Putin would appear to adhere less to Clausewitz than the 5th Century BC Chinese general Sun Tzu, 'subduing the enemy without fighting'.
For a country predisposed in the Western imagination to wars of imperial aggression, it's an interesting thought. The emerging paradox of Syria's tragic war is that in it may have been planted the seeds for a new era of diplomacy.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Department of State.