Mission accomplished?

Putin announces withdrawal of troops from Syria

Igor Komlenovic, News Editor, Puma Press

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On Monday this week, the 14th Russian president, Vladimir Putin, announced a surprise plan to pull out the “main part” of the Russian military forces from Syria. Putin cited a general fulfillment of objectives by the armed forces as the reason for their unexpected withdrawal.

 

Putin stated that the pull out would begin on Tuesday without a specific deadline for its completion. The Russian president also declared that the naval base in Tartus and airbase in Hmeymim would continue hosting Russian troops.

This announcement comes at a pivotal time in the Syrian civil war, which has wrecked the country for five years and left 250,000 dead in its wake. Currently, there is a limited ceasefire in place, which excludes terrorist groups such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. However, both groups command a sizeable amount of territory making a true cessation of violence virtually impossible in the short-term.

How Russia changed the landscape in Syria

Russia began its military campaign in war torn Syria in September of last year. Speaking to Russian journalists on Sept. 29th, Putin explained that Russia is in Syria to support “official authorities” in combating terrorism. When the bombing officially began, it became clear that Russia was also determined to redefine which forces entangled in the complex war were to be labeled as terrorists.

One of the major targets of Russian strikes was the Al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, which had publically disavowed ISIS but nevertheless fights to rule Syria under strict sharia law. The extremist militia has throughout the conflict managed to integrate itself along with various moderate opposition groups, some of which have been supported by Western forces and our allies: Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey.

Russian forces have used this connection between moderate rebels and extremist elements as an excuse to carry out an indiscriminate bombing campaign in the areas where Assad’s forces were most vulnerable. Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu claims that Syrian troops have “liberated” more than “…400 towns and over 10,000 square kilometers of territory” since September, effectively turning the tide of war in Assad’s favor.

The Russian adventure in Syria has also caused it a great deal of tension with United States allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

In November, Turkey downed a Russian plane, which it accused of crossing into its air space. Turkmen militia in the North of Syria subsequently killed the pilot of the plane. This incident led to a cooling of relations and an exchange of sanctions between the two countries. Russia followed up the downing of the plane with intense shelling of Turkmen rebels in the north of Syria.

Fragile ceasefire and the road to peace

There has been much speculation over Russia’s decision to leave the theater at this particular time. While Assad’s position is definitely stronger than in September, the Syrian dictator is still very far away from his stated goal of “recapturing the whole of Syria.” Despite Assad’s rhetoric, it is becoming increasingly clear that victory will not be achieved by military means but by political compromise.

Some experts have speculated that the Russian withdrawal was a warning from Moscow to Damascus that Assad must play ball in the negotiations to come. There have also been speculations that Russia came in with the intent of prolonging the war and it has achieved that.

Senator John McCain falls in with those in the latter camp and has released a highly critical statement on his official website following Russia’s announcement. In it he accuses Russia of having “…changed the military facts on the ground and created the terms for a political settlement more favorable to their interests.” He also goes on to warn that the “…likely result is that the Syrian conflict will grind on, ISIL will grow stronger, and the refugees will keep coming.”

However, the reality more than likely falls somewhere in the middle.

Quiet simply, Russia came in with a limited set of goals and has achieved them. Assad is in a position to negotiate and the Russian base in Tartus is secure.

Above all else Russia has made it clear that it has both the ability and the will to interject itself into the Syrian war, while avoiding getting stuck in the quagmire that President Obama warned them of in November.

After half a decade of brutal war that has grown more savage and more sectarian each year, shouldn’t the main priority of all interested parties be to end the war and the terrible suffering endured by civilians? Would we not rather read about Syrians rebuilding their cities instead of destroying them?

It is my belief there is no solution without working with Russia. They have made their willingness and ability to influence the war in Syria known, and I believe the U.S. has to work with them diplomatically to ensure that the peace process unfolds.

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Mission accomplished?