MOSCOW â€" Vladimir Putin's decision to withdraw the lion's share of Russia"s troops from Syria might have come as a surprise, but insiders in Moscow say the timing makes perfect sense.
Many factors can explain why now. "Putin promised this operation would be limited in time and wouldn't lead to an Afghanistan-like stalemate," explains Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, who also notes that the coming hot weather and summer sand storms would reduce the efficiency of air attacks.
The Syrian operation carried a fundamentally new character for Moscow. "For the first time, the Russian military understood they could get results with the sole use of air power," Pukhov adds. "It's a revolution in the Russian mindframe, which until now mocked American or European interventions, because they thought victory was impossible without a ground intervention."
Still, the fact remains that Russia did little to defeat ISIS. Far from it, given that Russian warplanes essentially focused their strikes on other groups directly opposed to Bashar al-Assad. "Moscow has transformed the situation on the ground. Syrian forces are no longer faced with 56 fronts like at the beginning and can instead focus their offensive on just three or four fronts," notes Kirill Koktych, political theory professor at MGIMO University.
The Kremlin's other broader objective is the destruction of Islamist fighters from former-USSR countries. And we don't know whether that was successful. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, there are about 2,000 of them. The Kremlin has made it no secret they're concerned about the dangers if these fighters return home.
Putin is also aware that he has gotten off lightly, with very little human losses on the Russian side. And reports that anti-aircraft missiles had reached Syrian rebels for the first time since the beginning of the conflict, courtesy of Ankara and Riyadh, may have also accelerated the pullout.
Among diplomatic circles, Moscow's Syrian intervention is interpreted as a step towards a long-term objective that consists in restoring a parity â€" at least a symbolical one â€" with Washington in the running of international affairs. "Vladimir Putin isn't focused on Assad's fate," a diplomatic source says. "What he wants is to be treated as an equal by the American president. Russia's fantasy is to divvy up the world with the Americans, like they did at the time of the Yalta conference."
International relations expert Vladimir Frolov concurs. "The strategical goal behind the Syrian operation was the rebirth of the American-Russian bipolar format. Seen from Moscow, this type of relationship with Washington is the key element that defines a global power status ... leading to the stabilization of a system that's coming out of a unipolar world into a new world order. The Russian-American cooperation in Syria can and must become a model to resolve regional conflicts, and in the fight against terrorism."
Resolving other tricky conflicts, like the one in eastern Ukraine, will be a crucial test for this renewed bipolar power status that Vladimir Putin has been seeking for so long.
A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.
BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.
Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.
The incident at the cemetery
They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."
There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.
It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.
The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.
The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender
Crimes against Jews are rising
Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.
Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.
Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.
And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?
Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously
This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.
Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.
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