Putin sticks to his Syria plan

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement on March 14 that “the main part” of the >Russian military presence in Syria would be pulled out may have taken many by surprise. Most analysts and policymakers expected Russia to play a long-haul game in Syria. At least that’s what the recent examples suggest about big power interventions — engagement is easy but disengagement is tough. And in >Syria’s case, the war against terrorism is unlikely to end in the foreseeable future, which would have provided Russia enough reasons to continue its military operations. But Mr. Putin said the objectives set for the Russian Defence Ministry have been “generally accomplished”. A day later, Russian forces actually started withdrawing from Syria.

Did Russia accomplish its mission? In the initial days of the intervention, Russian authorities had repeatedly claimed they would defeat terrorists in Syria. But they haven’t. After five-and-a-half months of Russian bombing, the Islamic State (IS), the strongest and most brutal terror outfit in the country, still controls huge swathes of territory. Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate, is also strong in parts of Syria.

Though the Syrian regime has made advances in the war, a total victory still looks unimaginable. The intervention has actually damaged Russia’s ties with Gulf kingdoms and deteriorated its relations with Turkey, a Nato member country. So what accomplishments is Mr. Putin talking about?

The Moscow plan

To understand the real >Russian achievement in Syria , one has to look at the balance-of-power dynamics in the battlefield before the Russian intervention. Russia started its bombing campaign on September 30 at a time when President Bashar al-Assad was feeling the heat of rebel advances. The government was struggling with acute manpower shortage and its control areas shrunk to the Alawite coastal belt, while almost two-thirds of the country was lost to rebels and terrorists. The regime was hanging on the life support provided by Iran and Hezbollah. In May last year, it lost Palmyra, a strategically important central city, to the IS. In the same month, rebels captured the Idlib province, breathing down the neck of the regime. The external supporters of the rebels, mainly Saudi Arabia and Turkey, had persistently called for Mr. Assad to quit. So did the Americans. Most rebel groups had made the removal of Mr. Assad as the country’s president a precondition for talks. International analysts predicted an imminent collapse of the regime. Then came the Russians.

The Russian intervention has irrevocably changed the balance of power in the battlefield. After repeated setbacks, the government forces actually started making gains, aided by heavy Russian bombardments. According to the Russian DefenceMinistry, the Syrian government has retaken some 10,000 sq. km land from the opposition since September.

From the beginning of their involvement, the Russians were accused of targeting rebel forces instead of terror groups. As it emerges now, it was part of the plan. Mr. Putin knew that the IS could not be defeated through air strikes. For a larger offensive against the IS, the Syrian state has to be restored, which could be possible only through direct talks between the government and the non-jihadist opposition forces. But the opposition, expecting a collapse of the regime, was not ready for talks. Russia has altered this stalemate, by weakening rebel positions and bolstering the regime.

Most advances the regime made were in the rebel-controlled Idlib and Aleppo provinces. The rebels had two options: continue fighting a war that they are gradually losing, or agree to join talks to look for a political solution. Their regional backers also realised that the ‘Assad-must-go’ call was not going to be realised. But one can still ask why, despite these gains, Russia decided to pull out its forces?

Limited goals

The answer is that Russia never believed in a military solution to the Syrian crisis. It had reportedly offered transition in Syria in 2012 to Western nations for political reconciliation, an offer the U.S. and European powers rejected because they thought Mr. Assad would fall. Russia’s fundamental goal is to keep its military interests in Syria. It’s the only country where Russia has a naval facility outside the former Soviet region. Second, Russia doesn’t want the Syrian regime to collapse and result in chaos, which it thinks would be a breeding ground for terrorists. At the same time, Russia seems to have made a realistic evaluation of the actual situation in Syria. It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to repair the reputation of President Assad. The rebels are well-armed and supported by regional and global powers. So a protracted war is unlikely to serve anybody’s interest.

Besides, Mr. Putin would not want to go down in history as another Leonid Brezhnev, who sent troops to Afghanistan in 1979. The Red Army had to retreat after nine years in ignominy. The more recent examples of Iraq and Afghanistan, where the U.S. is trapped in never-ending conflicts, are also in front of the Russians. Besides, Russia is undergoing severe economic pains. Russian GDP dropped by 3.7 per cent in 2015 and the rouble has fallen by 50 per cent against the dollar since 2014. More importantly, by announcing the troops’ pullout, Moscow has sent a stern message to Damascus. It wants the Syrian government to take the Geneva talks with the rebels seriously and be ready to make compromises for a political solution.

The ceasefire in Syria is surprisingly holding for the past two weeks, which itself shows that the fighting factions were desperate for a cessation of hostilities. Now, at least there’s a possibility for peace. The opposition has virtually accepted that another Libya cannot be repeated in Syria. And Mr. Putin’s move has brightened the possibilities for a compromise. The rebels and their backers, including the U.S., should take cue from the Russians and respond positively. This is a chance nobody can afford to miss.

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Printable version | Dec 3, 2021 4:12:54 AM |

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