More than taking the world fraternity by surprise or stunning them, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of March 14 that “the main part” of the Russian military presence in Syria would be pulled out has made them scared and nervous.
They are trying to comprehend Putin’s next move. Though the Obama administration has been trying to reassure his allies that Putin was forced to withdraw as he was finding it going tough in Syria, and he would also cajole the Syrian ruler Bashar al Assad to concede some ground during the peace talks, the allies and especially the Nato countries are not willing to subscribe the USA postulate. Little doubt Putin’s declaration has floored the USA and the Obama administration the allies nurse the view that Russia intended to settle down in Syria and build its military base there. This possibility has made the USA and its allies, particularly the Saudi Arabia and Nato member to refashion their strategies.
After all, engagement is easy but disengagement is tough. But Putin kept his words and true to his earlier assurance Russia will leave Syria the day the task is accomplished, finally decided to withdraw. In their panic reactions the western supporters of the USA do not agree to the fact that Russia has kept its word to defeat the terrorism in Syria. Instead of accepting the fact that Russian action has broken the hold of the terrorists, they argue since Russia failed to finish the ISIS and Islamic State it decided to withdraw to save its prestige and image. Putin is left to undertake the cleaning operation. It is also argued that Russian intervention has actually damaged its ties with Gulf kingdoms and Turkey, a Nato member country. But the fact is otherwise.
True enough Russia has managed to score three gains; first, he salvaged the global pride of the Soviet Russia lost in the wake of glasnost and perestroika, to a large extent; second, militarily he attained supremacy and also projected Russia as the harbinger of global peace; third, he shattered the hegemonic policy of the USA and changed the global balance of the power dynamics. This is a no mean achievement for a country which till recently has been at the receiving end of the US hegemony.
To understand the real Russian achievement in Syria, one has to look at the balance-of-power dynamics of Russian intervention. Russia started its campaign in Syria on September 30 at a time when Assad was losing his grip on his country: the government was struggling with acute manpower shortage, its control area was shrinking, and almost two-thirds of the country was lost to rebels and terrorists. Assad was literally surviving on borrowed life-support system.
While the terrorists and rebels had intensified their campaign against him, the US and its allies were also riding on his neck demanding his resignation. Assad’s exist would have completely changed the map and the politics of the region, especially the MIddleEast.. The rebel groups had made the removal of Assad as the country’s president, a precondition for talks. International analysts predicted an imminent collapse of the regime. It was at this stage Russia entered into the frame.
Russian entry completely changed the balance of power. Today removal of Assad is no more an issue. After Putin’s announcement to withdraw, the US block came out with the revelation that the terrorists have not been completely eliminated and continue to exist. This is in sharp contrast to their earlier stand that Russia was simply targeting the rebels or forces aided by the USA. The fact of the matter is after some initial setbacks, the government forces actually started making gains. According to the Russian defence ministry, the Syrian government has regained around 10,000 sq. km land from the opposition during the Russian operation..
The answer is that Russia never believed in a military solution to the Syrian crisis. In 2012 Russia had offered transition in Syria to Western nations for political reconciliation but the U.S. and European powers rejected because they were nursing the notion that Assad would fall. Russia’s primary motto has been to keep its military interests in Syria. It also does not want the Syrian regime to collapse and turning it into a breeding ground for terrorists. A weak and fragile Syria is not of interest for Russia. The reason is the western powers and the USA would use them against it.
For Putin, the Syrian intervention has been a high-stake game in which he has gained. He has reinserted Russia into the Middle East as a decisive and tough player. For Russia to be counted as a great power it is imperative that it must have a strong ally in the Middle East and from that point Syria is the best. With Syrian success he has emerged as the key player in the global diplomacy.
Putin took personal charge to turn a Syrian ceasefire into reality. Through his statesman like action he showed to the world how to avert a sure civil war and restore peace. Putin was aware that a long term military action was not in the interest of Russia and he also gauged the geographical gains made by the Syrian government forces – particularly around Aleppo in the past three months – have sufficiently strengthened Assad’s hand at the negotiating table.
His action also makes it absolutely clear that 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 example of US army trapped in Iraq and Afghanistan is also in front of Putin. Yet another major factor for pulling out has been the economic pains Russia has. Russian GDP dropped by 3.7 per cent in 2015 and the Ruble has fallen by 50 per cent against the dollar since 2014. One thing is absolutely clear Putin does not want Russia to be dragged into a protracted war, the way the Soviet Union got trapped in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Through both Syria and Ukraine, Putin wants to project Russia as a power that cannot be ignored. No doubt he has won credit with Russian public opinion. At a time of great financial constraints for Russia, with global oil prices down and sanctions biting, that matters. Russia’s state media is already celebrating a victory in Syria, showing pilots acclaimed by crowds, as bands play the national anthem. Western countries nurse the notion that Putin will drop Assad, now that he has demonstrated Russian power in the Middle East. But it appears that they are far from the truth. Significantly Russia has made iTs intentions clear that it would continue military operations against the Islamic State and another terror group linked to al-Qaeda. The forces remaining in Syria have the task of continuing to strike terrorist targets.
The master stroke of Putin has been to involve the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in the Geneva peace talk; the powers that fuelled terrorism and ISIS in Middle East must now strive for restoring peace. Russia is winning this phase of the war, so renewed negotiations will solidify its gains and allow the Syrian government to restore sovereignty over the entire country. Then, a combined onslaught by the Russians, Americans, Syrian army, Hezbollah, Kurds, non-jihadist Syrian rebels, Iran and Iraq will be able to remove Islamic State from Syria and Iraq. IPA