Monday’s decision by Russian President Vladimir Putin to withdraw “the main part” of his forces from Syria surprised both the opposition movements and the Assad regime, as well as the West.
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The reason Putin gave for the withdrawal was that his forces had met most of their objectives and achieved a turning point in the struggle of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime against “international terror.”
But because Putin had never actually spelled out what the objectives of the Russian military intervention were, and because most of his attacks were aimed at the opposition forces and not the Islamic State group, only he can determine what constitutes success and when it was achieved.
That’s also what the Americans did when they decided to withdraw from Iraq in 2011 and Afghanistan in 2014.
The announcement doesn’t mean that all Russian forces have left Syria. The bases at Tartus and Hmeimim will continue to be manned by Russian forces, and the Russian air force will continue to patrol the Syrian skies.
Putin can return his troops with relative ease should the need arise. Meanwhile, he can try to shake off the image of the bad guy and enemy of the Arabs that he had earned in the Arab media.
It seems Putin recognized that the Russian air force could not achieve more than what it already has without the assistance of Russian ground forces; that Russia’s policy influence on Syria is assured in any event; and that it was time to implement the Russian plan to divide Syria into districts that would be united under a federal regime – a plan that Russia can only advance if it looks like a friend to all the parties.
Russia, which supports the Kurds and maintains strong ties with most of the rebel militias and Assad, can now move from the battlefield to the diplomatic arena without running the risk of losing any status.
Putin is correct in that his forces did succeed in restoring Assad’s control over several key regions.
He can also savor the fact that the exit of most of the Iranian forces has removed Russia’s greatest competitor.
And he has no need to worry that the United States or European countries will try to swoop in to gain control of Syria. He can count on their powerlessness.
Still, Russia is leaving the arena without a decisive military victory or any possibility of either President Assad or the rebels emerging victorious.
Russia has apparently established a military stasis, in which the Syrian army will have a hard time continuing to battle the rebels, while the cease-fire obtained through Russian pressure also poses a dilemma for the rebels.
As a result, all the parties seem to have an interest in the success of the diplomatic talks.
If the parties don’t see the Russian withdrawal as an opportunity to renew the fighting, then the option of dividing Syria into three or more districts, as Russia envisions, seems like a reasonable solution.
For the short term, at least.