Putin’s progress

Print edition : April 15, 2016

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the Kremlin on March 14. Photo: Mikhail Klimentyev/AP

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with government soldiers at Maaloula near Damascus. A file photograph. Photo: AP

Russian pilots returning from Syria, at an airbase in Primorsko-Akhtarsk, southern Russia, on March 16. Photo: AP

Russia announces a partial troop pullout from Syria after successfully beating back terrorist groups and creating favourable conditions for the peace process to begin.

RUSSIAN President Vladimir Putin's announcement on March 14 that the bulk of the Russian forces deployed in Syria would be withdrawn caught the United States and its allies on the wrong foot. Their prediction that Russia would be mired in a long-drawn-out war was proved wrong. At the beginning of the military campaign in Syria last year, Putin had made it clear that Russia’s mission in Syria was a time-bound one with clear-cut military goals. It is clear that ever since the Russian Air Force was deployed in Syria in October 2015, the Daesh (the Arabic term for the Islamic State, or IS) and other terrorist groups such as the Jabhat al-Nusra have been in retreat. The Syrian Army and its allies are advancing on all fronts.

Making the announcement of a partial withdrawal of Russian troops at a meeting in the Kremlin with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, Putin said the military goals that he had set were “generally fulfilled”.

“With participation by the Russian troops and Russian military groupings, the Syrian troops and Syrian patriotic forces, we were able to radically change the situation in fighting international terrorism and take the initiative in nearly all areas to create the conditions for the start of a peace process,” he said. Putin hoped that the decision would “lift the level of trust between all the participants in the Syrian peace process and promote the resolution of the Syrian issue via peaceful means”. He emphasised that Moscow was able “to create the conditions for a peace process”. The timing of the Russian troop withdrawal was meant to coincide with the beginning of a new round of peace talks in Geneva. The talks, however, are yet to begin in a meaningful manner.

Moscow also ensured that the “cessation of hostilities” that it had brokered in the last week of February had been a success. After five years of unremitting violence, most parts of Syria are witnessing a peaceful interlude, with food and essential supplies reaching many beleaguered areas that had long been under siege. The substantial Russian military pullout may help prolong the ceasefire and finally get the peace process kick-started. Russia wants elections to be held in areas controlled by the government and rebel groups it considers “moderate”. The government in Damascus has been amenable to this plan but refuses to accede to the demand of the West that Bashar al-Assad should not be a candidate in the elections. The opposition figures, known to be close to Saudi Arabia and Turkey, are still sticking to the stance that “Assad should go”, while the Syrian government is refusing to have “face-to-face” talks with representatives of “terrorist groups” in Geneva.

Putin kept Assad in the loop about Russia’s decision to withdraw its troops and assured him that Russia would retain its naval base in Tartus and the Air Force base in Hmeymim. Russia’s S-400 missile systems will remain in place to safeguard Syria against aerial threats from Turkey. The Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, harbours hopes of establishing a “no-fly zone” along the country’s long border with Syria. “We stick to the fundamental international laws and believe that nobody has the right to violate Syria’s sovereign air space” he said.

Presenting gallantry awards to Russian soldiers who distinguished themselves in Syria, Putin praised Assad’s “sincere striving for peace and his readiness for compromise and dialogue”. Assad, on his part, said that the “scaling back” of the Russian forces was possible because of the successes achieved by the two armies in combating terrorism and restoring peace to key areas. Putin said Russian forces would be redeployed in Syria at short notice, “within a few hours”, if needed. Besides, Russian military assets in the Caspian Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, located not too far from Syria, remain operational. Putin stressed that the Syrian Army, with Russia’s assistance, could not only hold territory but can advance in many sectors, defeating terrorist groups.

Shoigu told Putin that “terrorists have been cleared out of Latakia, communications have been restored with Aleppo, and we have cleared most of the provinces of Homs and Hama”. Russia’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, told the media that his country would continue to maintain a military presence in Syria to ensure that the “cessation of hostilities” deal was implemented. Meanwhile, he said, Russia’s diplomatic energies would be focussed on achieving a political solution to the conflict in Syria.

The Syrian Army is being assisted by the Hizbollah, the Lebanese militia that has successfully confronted the powerful Israeli military machine. Iranian and Afghan volunteers, trained by Iran’s al Quds force, are also playing a big role in beating back the terrorist grouping, which is supported by some of Syria’s neighbours. Former Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, who is now foreign policy adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, told the media that Russia’s withdrawal “will not change the overall cooperation between Iran, Russia, Syria and allied forces such as the Hizbollah”. The Iranian media have reported that following the Russian troop withdrawal, attempts to send fighters to replenish the ranks of the Daesh and the al-Nusra Front fighters through Syria’s border with Turkey have been detected. According to reports, Russian and Syrian planes successfully targeted a convoy carrying the fighters as soon as it crossed into Syrian territory.

There seems to be some kind of understanding between Moscow and Washington on the issue of de-escalating the situation in the region. President Barack Obama’s critical statements on the role played by the U.S.’ allies (Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey) in the region are an indication that that Washington has distanced itself somewhat from the governments there. These governments were opposed to a ceasefire and continue to insist on regime change in Damascus. But once Moscow and Washington started acting in tandem, they had no option but to fall in line and now generally support the “cessation of hostilities” agreement.

Moscow may have got an assurance from Washington that it will ensure that the flow of weapons and money to rebel fighters from the Gulf monarchies through Turkey will be stopped. In 2013, the U.S. supplied 15,000 TOW (track-wire guided) anti-tank missiles to Saudi Arabia. Many of these lethal missiles landed up in the hands of al-Nusra and the Daesh. Moscow and Washington have been coordinating their strategy in dealing with the Daesh and supporting Syrian Kurds in their fight against terrorists, including those belonging to the al-Nusra Front, which has the support of Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Syrian Kurds, under the leadership of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Party (SYPD), have used the relative lull in fighting to announce that they plan to carve out an autonomous region over much of northern Syria. Kurds constitute only around two million of Syria’s population of 22.1 million. Moscow has batted for the inclusion of Kurds in the negotiating process in Geneva. But unlike the U.S., Russia has always stood for a united Syria. Russia may be tacitly encouraging the Kurds to rattle the Turkish government with whom it is at daggers drawn after the downing of a Russian plane. Turkey is engaged in an increasingly brutal war with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in its territory. The SYPD is closely aligned with the PKK. American and Israeli policymakers have always dreamed of breaking up West Asia into small statelets.

A Kurdish state in the heart of the Arab world is a goal that the West wants to achieve. Former Obama administration officials talked about carving Syria into several rump states as their dream of regime change in Damascus started fading. The U.S. Army has deployed around 50 special operations troops and refurbished the Rmeilan airbase in north-eastern Syria to arm and train Syrian Kurds. Rmeilan is situated near some of Syria’s major oilfields. The base is also near a key oil supply line to Raqqa, the capital of the so-called I.S. The U.S. and Russia are keen on cutting the supply lines of the I.S. as preparations are under way for a final assault on the city.

The government in Ankara considers the PKK and its allies in Syria “terrorist groupings”. The Turkish government has stated that under no circumstances will it tolerate an independent Kurdish state or enclave along its border. The autonomous Kurdish government in northern Iraq is a virtual ally of Ankara. The Syrian government has also said that it is against Syrian Kurds forming an autonomous enclave. Right now, the Syrian Army is cooperating with Syrian Kurds to fight their common enemies, such as the Daesh and al-Nusra. Damascus has always looked askance at attempts by ethnic and sectarian groups to dismember the country.

Even as a glimmer of light appears at the end of the long tunnel, more challenges lie ahead for the people of Syria who have been unjustly subjected to a merciless war by imperialist powers and their allies in West Asia. The Daesh smashed the artificial boundaries drawn by colonial powers, but the war in Syria, which is entering its sixth year, can end with the map of West Asia looking somewhat different.

Meanwhile, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, half a million Syrians have been killed in the conflict, 6.5 million have become internal refugees, and more than three million are living in refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

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