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EYES WIDE OPEN: The Syrian war just taught Putin to worry about Iran


Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised the world by announcing on Monday that most of his troops would leave Syria. Military analysts were flummoxed.

I, for one, had expected all of the forces backing the regime of Bashar al-Assad to catch their collective breath, then resume the offensive.

What happened?

In retrospect, it looks obvious: Putin finally met the Middle East. And unlike President Obama, the Russian czar faced reality.

Allowing that Putin could re-engage in the future, and that his forces accomplished their primary goal of propping up the regime and giving it breathing space, the announcement still came as a cold-water shock to all — except the Iranians.

Initial Western reactions have stressed the recalcitrance of Assad, who has refused to consider stepping aside. Instead, Assad’s latest pronouncements have been defiant bordering on megalomania. Putin had every reason to be fed up.

Russian cargo planes and fighter jets leave the Hmeymim air base as Russia pulls out its air force from Syria:

Putin didn’t go into Syria because Assad was a pal. He sent in his air power and his commandos to expand Russia’s regional influence as American power ebbed. He thought he saw a not-to-be-missed strategic opportunity.

And he certainly expected Assad to be grateful for his salvation at Russian hands.

But gratitude isn’t in the Middle East’s repertoire. As Americans discovered painfully, the region’s thanks resemble the bite of a cobra.

There’s even a cost factor: Russia’s economy’s shrinking, and Putin’s been forced to slow his cherished military renewal. Even the dumb bombs dropped on civilians in Syria carry a price.

Still, Putin’s abrupt departure has to have more behind it than a spurious desire to further peace talks, the need to save money or personal pique at Assad.

The long bet is that his generals, diplomats and intelligence hands on the ground were shocked by the degree to which Iran already and irrevocably dominates Syria. And Iraq. And Lebanon.

With a shudder, Putin recognized that his air campaign would ultimately benefit an emerging Persian/Iranian empire, rather than


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