New Delhi: Analysts still haven’t woken up to the real significance of Russia’s partial withdrawal of airpower from Syria. The press has reported that nearly half of Russia’s fixed-wing assets have been recalled in a sudden decision that has “blindsided” the remaining powers involved in the Syrian civil war and in the conflict against the ISIS.

Russia has employed classical balance-of-power tactics to win itself a role in the future of Syria and of the entirety of the Middle East. Months ago, few would have betted on Russia’s rise in the Middle East in this rather dramatic manner. It also advertises America’s poor hold on the foreign policy narrative under President Barack Obama.

While the fluctuating fortunes of Great Powers is a natural hazard of their towering status, the smart ones try to keep the phases of decline small and persevere not to precipitately fall. Britain was not smart in this respect and fell away after the Second World War. In their own fashion, the United States and Russia have tried to play smart with varying degrees of success. It must be admitted, however, that Russia has turned its intervention in Syria into an art form. The United States seems gauche in comparison.

This description would have fitted the departing Soviets in Afghanistan. When Russia intervened extra-territorially in Syria decades later, more than one military analyst shook his head in despair. The ghosts of Afghanistan were revived. There was a feeling that Vladimir Putin’s Russia had overreached itself.

This writer begged to differ. And in a limited sense, his contrariness has been vindicated.

At the time of the Russian intervention, the Bashar al-Assad regime was floundering. The West led by the United States was totally opposed to the regime and its continuation. Rebels backed by America who were no less barbaric than the ISIS were gaining ground against Assad’s government forces.

The biggest winner up to that point was the ISIS. It was being backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. Its illegal oil trade with Turkey and certain Western countries was flourishing. Not only was it mounting irrepressible pressure on the Syrian regime, it seemed to be progressing surely to becoming the caliphate of its boastful proclamations. It had carved up a vast territory for itself joining swathes of Syria and Iraq.

These developments were rapidly fuelled by the decision-making vacuum induced by Barack Obama’s Washington. Obama was keener on rhetorical flourishes of inaction. He seemed powerless to stop the Sunni powers that were maniacally arming the ISIS. While he had opened a line to Iran with the nuclear deal, Obama seemed unable to grasp the advantages he had obtained for America. Here was a chance to balance Iran against the Sunni powers. In the early 1970s, the US did these things rather well. In the present, a situation of no greater moment had overwhelmed the Barack Obama White House.

Enter Vladimir Putin. He had long warned the West of the dangers of pampering Islamists. The terrible ruins of Iraq and Libya produced by misguided American and European intervention made him realize that the West as a whole was led by an effete and unthinking leadership. When his warnings fell on deaf ears, he decided to go into Syria with substantial airpower and proportionally smaller land forces.

When intervening in a foreign war, it is critical to possess beforehand convincing political objectives to do so. While ideology cannot always be separated from politico-military undertakings, they ought to be kept to a minimum. At the same time, it is important to determine the type and scale of intervention that would meet and fulfil those political objectives. Desired outcomes and unintended consequences must be fully assessed and factored prior to intervention. A ceiling on risk has to be placed.

Taking these and scores of other factors into consideration, the Russians intervened to the best of their ability and military capacity. They filled a vacuum created by American indecision and dithering. Their primary objective was to shore up the Assad regime against rebels and the ISIS while keeping the future continuation of the regime in a situation of free elections and democracy open. The Russian objective, secondarily, was to regain some of the lost Great Power prestige. Finally, the Russians wanted a say in the affairs of the Middle East. Unilateral and immature American actions of the past had thrown the region into turmoil. Russia wanted to be seen as a stabilizer.

In all these objectives, Russia has succeeded to a remarkable degree. Putin has emerged as a redoubtable Great Power leader. He ensured that the Russian intervention was planned and not open-ended and confused. The swift intervention and swifter drawdown have enabled Russian forces to retain shock value in overseas engagements. By siding with Syria and informally Iran, Russia weakened aggressors acting in some instances as Western proxies. This tilted the balance and took the battle, in a manner of speaking, to the West, which was compelled to accommodate Russian concerns.

So far, Russia has played its cards brilliantly in Syria.