Thursday, March 17, 2016

Russia's Syrian Split

Suriya al Kubra!

 “I consider the objectives that have been set for the Defense Ministry to be generally accomplished.”

These words constitute an admission. Putin revealed that Russian forces did not come to Syria to fight radical Islamic terrorists or ISIS, as he and other Russian government officials have repeatedly stated since their military operation kicked off in September. ISIS is still going strong as a political-military force in Syria, controlling significant territory, fighting in Syria (and Iraq), and from Syria recruiting and inspiring affiliates to terrorist acts worldwide.

It should now be clear to those hanging on to a shred of hope that Putin was never going to join the Western coalition against ISIS in Syria. The Kremlin’s objective was always to achieve a negotiated settlement through the Geneva Talks that allows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to remain in power for some time and for Russia to retain its key influence over his government. It was not to fight terrorism in Syria. 

Russia's sudden split ain't all that. In truth, only withithdrawing some forces — bomber squadrons, for example — while retaining his military infrastructure (air bases, port facilities, etc.) in Syria.

For years Russia tried to get its way mainly through diplomacy but that didn’t work. So last September, Russia decided to try the same strategy in Syria that worked in Ukraine. Russia’s tactical military moves there tipped in their favor the negotiating dynamic that boiled down to the Minsk Agreements. Just as in Ukraine, Kremlin is seeking to turn military advances into diplomatic leverage, having demonstrated it will intervene militarily to save its ally and gain territory for Syria.

This leverage cuts two ways. Russia’s maximum moment of leverage over the future of Syria will be on Tuesday just its forces begin to withdraw. Up until now Russia’s military intervention had increased pressure on the Syrian opposition and its backers, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, France, the UK and the other European and Middle Eastern states in the 64-member coalition led by the United States.  Russia had rescued Assad’s government from ever-increasing military losses and a real threat to its control of territory and survival. 

Starting Tuesday, Russia will also have increased its leverage over Assad. By signaling a Russian withdrawal — and at this point, it is only signaling — Putin is making clear that Russia is not providing Assad unlimited support. Now that Russia’s brutal military intervention has forced the West to compromise on when Assad must leave, Assad must be ready to compromise with the opposition and the coalition on a political settlement. Russia thus appears to have thrown its weight behind the U.N.-led negotiations in Geneva. 

Big questions remain:

1) How much military force will Russia withdraw and what assets will Russia leave in Syria?  Will air operations continue? 

 2) Will Russia be prepared to deploy troops again if Assad begins to lose territory?

 3) Will Assad (and Iran) compromise?

4) What are the implications for Ukraine?