Syria: Partial Russian Pullout
THE announcement on March 14 by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin that the bulk of the Russian forces deployed in Syria were being withdrawn caught Washington and its allies on the wrong foot. Their predictions that Russia would be mired in a long drawn out war were deflated. At the beginning of the military campaign in Syria last year, President Putin had made it clear that the mission in Syria was a time bound one with clear cut military goals. It is clear that in the five and the half months the Russian air force was deployed in Syria, the Daesh (IS) along with the other terrorist grouping like Jabhat al Nusra are in retreat. The Syrian army and its allies are making advances on all fronts. At a meeting in the Kremlin with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov and the defense minister Sergei Shoigu, Putin while announcing the partial withdrawal of Russian forces said that 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”, Putin said. The timing of Russian withdrawal was meant to coincide with the beginning of a new round of peace talks in Geneva. Moscow had also ensured that the “cessation of hostilities” that it had brokered in the last week of February has been a success so far. 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, either from government forces or from terrorist groups. The substantial Russian military pull out may help prolong the cease fire 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 as “moderate”. The government in Damascus has been amenable to this plan but refuses to accede to the demand of the West that Assad should not be a candidate in the elections.
President Putin while making the announcement of Russian troop withdrawals expressed the hope 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”. The Russian president emphasised that Moscow has now been able “to create the conditions for a peace process”. The peace talks however have yet to begin in a meaningful manner. The opposition figures, known to be close to Saudi Arabia and Turkey are still sticking to the stance that “Assad should go” while the government in Damascus is refusing to have “face to face” talks with representatives of “terrorist groups” in Geneva.
Before announcing the decision, the Russian president had kept the Syrian president, Bashar al Assad in the loop. Putin assured his Syrian counterpart that Russia would retain its naval base in Tartus and air force base in Hmeymim. The Russian S-400 missile systems will remain in place to safeguard Syria against aerial threats emanating from Turkey. The Turkish president, Recep Tayeb Erdogan still 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” President Putin said.
Putin spoke highly of Assad while presenting gallantry awards to Russian soldiers who distinguished themselves in Syria. Putin praised President Assad's “sincere striving for peace and his readiness for compromise and dialogue”. The Syrian president, 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. President Putin has said that Russian forces could be redeployed at short notice “within a few hours” to Syria if needed. Besides, Russian military assets in the Caspian and the Mediterranean, located not too far from Syria, remain operational. The Russian president stressed that now the Syrian army with Russian assistance can not only hold territory but can advance in many sectors defeating terrorist groups.
The Russian defense minister, Sergei Shoigu told President Putin that the “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 UN, Vitaly Churkin, told the media that Moscow would continue to maintain a military presence in Syria to ensure that the “cessation of hostilities” deal is implemented. Meanwhile, he said, Russia's diplomatic energies will be focused on achieving a political solution to the conflict in Syria.
The Syrian army is also being assisted by the Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese militia that has successfully confronted the powerful Israeli military machine. Iranian and Afghan volunteers trained by the Iranian al Quds force, are also playing a big role in beating back the terrorist grouping still being supported by some Syria's neighbours. The former Iranian foreign minister, Ali Akbar Velayati, who is now the 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 Hezbollah”. The Iranian media has reported that the attempts to send fighters to replenish the ranks of Daesh and Nusra Front fighters through the border with Turkey have been detected after the withdrawal of Russian forces. According to reports, the convoy carrying the fighters was successfully targeted by Russian and Syrian planes as soon as they 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 its allies like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey in the region are indications that Washington has distanced itself somewhat from the governments there. These governments were opposed to a cease fire and continue to be insistent 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 would ensure that weapons and money flowing to rebel fighters from the Gulf monarchies through Turkey will be stopped. In 2013, the US supplied 15,000 TOW anti tank missiles to Saudi Arabia. Many of these lethal missiles landed up in the hands of the al Nusra and the Daesh. Moscow and Washington have been coordinating their strategy in dealing with the Daesh and supporting the Syrian Kurds in their fight against the terrorists, including the al Nusra Front, which has the support of countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
The 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 2 million of Syria's population. Moscow has batted for the inclusion of Kurds in the negotiating process in Geneva. But unlike the Americans, the Russians have always stood for a united Syria. Moscow 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. The Turkish government is engaged in an increasingly brutal war with the guerillas of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) inside Turkey. The SYPD in Syria is closely aligned with the PKK. American and Israeli policy makers have always been dreaming 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 had also talked about carving Syria into several rump states as their dream of regime change in Damascus started fading. The US army has already deployed around 50 special operations troops and refurbished the Rmeilan air base in north eastern Syria to arm and train the Syrian Kurds. Rmeilan is situated near some of Syria's major oil fields. The base is also near a key supply line to Raqqa, the capital of the so-called Islamic State. The US and Russia are both keen on cutting the supply lines of the IS as preparations are underway on a final assault on the city.
The government in Ankara considers the PKK and its allies in Syria as “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 the Syrian Kurds forming an autonomous enclave. Right now, the Syrian army is cooperating with the Syrian Kurds to fight their common enemies – the terrorist groups like the Daesh and the al Nusra Front. 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 local allies. It was the Daesh which smashed the artificial boundaries drawn by the colonial powers but the war in Syria entering its sixth year could end with the map in West Asia looking somewhat different. Meanwhile according to the UNHCR, in the last five years, half a million Syrians out of a population of 22.1 have been killed in the conflict. 6.5 million have become internal refugees and more than three million Syrians have left the country with most of them living in refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.