An opportunity for peace in Syria

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:04 pm IST

Published - March 16, 2016 12:34 am IST

Vladimir Putin has once again surprised world leaders by >ordering the withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria . As in the case of Mr. Putin’s other major foreign policy moves in his current term as Russian President, such as the annexation of Crimea and the intervention in Syria, not many had seen this coming. While announcing the decision he said the “principal tasks set for the armed forces of Russia in Syria have been accomplished”, without detailing the achievements. Though Mr. Putin’s claims may sound rhetorical, it is not difficult to understand the rationale behind the move. The > five and a half months of Russian intervention has irrevocably changed the course of the Syrian civil war. As Russia started the bombing campaign on September 30, the regime looked fragile after continuous military setbacks. President Bashar al-Assad had publicly acknowledged that his army was struggling with manpower shortages. But since the Russian involvement started, the regime has regained some territory, weakened rebel positions and disrupted rebel supply lines. It even expanded its reach to the outskirts of Aleppo, once considered completely lost to militant groups. The timing of the Russian move is also important. The Geneva peace talks between the regime and the opposition are set to start. For the first time in the five years of the conflict, the prospects of peace look less doomed, if not actually bright. A ceasefire between the rebels and the regime that came into force two weeks ago is still holding, however fragile it might be. By announcing the troop withdrawal, Moscow is putting enormous pressure on the Assad regime to make real compromises in the peace talks. Moreover, Mr. Putin does not want Russia to be dragged into a protracted war, the way the Soviet Union got trapped in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

>Also read: Who is fighting whom in Syria?

However, this does not mean Russia is deserting Syria. Mr. Putin has made it clear that Russia would continue to operate the Latakia airbase. Needless to say, the Russian presence at the Tartus naval facility on the Mediterranean Sea will continue. This will allow Russia to quickly deploy troops in Syria in the future if the need arises. So Mr. Putin’s actual plan appears to be to use the momentum created in favour of the regime by the Russian intervention to find a political settlement to the Syrian crisis. This is consistent with Russia’s position towards Syria. From the advent of the crisis, Moscow has been insisting on a political solution. Russia’s concern is less about protecting Mr. Assad than about retaining the core of the Baathist state, which, Moscow believes, is vital for the survival of Syria in the long fight ahead against terrorist groups such as the Islamic State. Now it is time for the rebels and their backers, including the United States, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to respond to Russia’s gestures. They should make use of the opportunity at the Geneva talks to push for reconciliation with the regime. Because the only alternative to talks is pushing Syria into war again.

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