Risks in Putin’s Syria Withdrawal

Exclusive: After helping Syria’s army push back jihadist rebels, Russian President Putin says he will begin withdrawing Russian forces, raising new questions about Syria’s future, writes Joe Lauria.

By Joe Lauria

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s surprise announcement to withdraw most Russian war planes and personnel from Syria has left the public in the dark about his motives, raising troubling questions about whether the move will provide an opening for the U.S., Turkey and their Gulf allies to resume their drive towards “regime change” in Damascus.

More than five months of Russian airstrikes and Russia’s reconstitution of the Syrian Army dramatically turned the war in President Bashar al-Assad’s favor and has left the jihadists in disarray. But the liberation of Aleppo was not yet complete. Also, the Islamic State has not been destroyed, although the Syrian army reportedly had entered Palmyra and reached near Raqqa, Islamic State’s capital.

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Faced with the loss of territory and Russia’s destruction of much of its oil infrastructure and supply lines to Turkey, Islamic State was forced to cut its fighters’ salaries, spurring increasing numbers of defections, including by a man from Alexandria, Virginia on Monday.

It is curious then that Russia, having the extremists on the ropes, would withdraw before the mission was accomplished – a mission to destroy terrorism in Syria announced by President Putin at the UN General Assembly in September.

Under the terms of the cessation of hostilities, in place for nearly two weeks, Russia could continue to strike Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front and the Islamic State as well as provide air cover to the Syrian Arab Army on the ground against these terrorist forces.

Putin’s move has led to widespread speculation that perhaps he has made a deal with the U.S., a grand bargain of sorts. Maybe Washington has offered a major concession on Ukraine, something President Barack Obama may gladly concede given what a disaster the U.S. adventure in that country has become.

Perhaps in a game of chicken with Obama, Putin blinked first. The U.S. has wanted Russia out of the Syrian theater since the moment it entered. Now, with Russia yielding the Syrian skies will the U.S. set up “a no-fly zone” as Turkey and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have desperately wanted?

Will Saudi and Turkish forces invade Syria to secure a partitioned state in eastern Syria — the so-called Plan B – through which they can run a natural gas pipeline from Qatar to Turkey on land now held by the Saudi-Turkish Islamic State proxies? Such a pipeline providing natural gas to Europe would directly undercut Russia, which now provides the majority of gas to the continent.

Some analysts believe the entire Syrian war was instigated when Assad in 2009 rejected a Qatari-Turkish-Saudi proposed gas line through Syrian territory. Two years later those three countries took advantage of a popular uprising to send in foreign jihadists to get rid of Assad. It turned out to be a lot more difficult than they imagined, with the war now five years old and Assad still in power.

With the gains made by the Russian-backed Syrian military in the past five months, a desperate Saudi Arabia and Turkey were poised to invade Syria to at least set up such an eastern Syrian state, if not try to drive towards Damascus to overthrow Assad. But Ankara and Riyadh said they wouldn’t invade without U.S. ground forces leading the way. However, such an intervention would have risked a direct U.S. confrontation with nuclear armed Russia, with all that implies.

With Russia still in the skies over Syria, President Obama apparently rejected the Saudi-Turkish invasion plea. But now that the Russian deterrent will be gone, Turkish and Saudi appetites might be whetted (although Obama has indicated a loss of patience with these purveyors of extremism).

Following the Russian withdrawal, even if Obama still continues to defy his neoconservative (and liberal interventionist) advisers who want to overthrow Assad even at the cost of a U.S.-led invasion, what about the next occupant of the White House?

At a Republican debate last week, three of the four candidates said they would support between 20,000 to 30,000 U.S. troops in Syria and Iraq, supposedly to fight the Islamic State. Once on the ground, however, the troops could easily make a detour towards Damascus.

Curiously, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the last days offered to divide the task of defeating Islamic State by inviting the U.S. to take Raqqa, an offer the U.S. refused. It is not at all clear why Russia would want the U.S. to control the Islamic State capital unless Moscow is pushing for a federalized Syria, which it has publicly supported. Assad has apparently also agreed.

Not quite a partition, a federal Syria could consist of an eastern province centered on Raqqa and Deir al-Zor , now under Islamic State control; a Kurdish province in the north; and an Alawite-Christian rump Syria, from Damascus to Aleppo.

But will the U.S. and its Gulf allies agree to this compromise or seize the opening to invade and remove Assad once and for all? Another question is whether Turkey would accept a federal Kurdish state on its borders?

A federation would retain power for the central government, something the Turks and Gulf Arabs would not easily accept. If they can’t have Assad’s head they might go for an independent Sunni state in the east — a different creature than a federal state.

An invasion to grab such a state would bring bloodshed and possibly Russia back into the conflict. A federation instead can be set up through negotiation — and indeed the U.S. and Russia may have already agreed on this. It would be up to the U.S. to bring the Gulf and its insurgents along.

These will be the hottest topics at U.N. peace talks that have resumed in Geneva. Will the talks yield a peace deal in which Assad stays at least six more months until a transitional government takes over, writes a new constitution and 18 months from now holds a general election over a Federal Syria?

The Saudi-led opposition still wants Assad removed immediately, something Russia, the U.S. and the United Nations reject. If some of the less extreme rebels can be brought around to accept a peaceful settlement, the talks might go somewhere.

Putin says the Russian intervention was a success because it stabilized the government and made a diplomatic solution possible. That remains to be determined.

Joe Lauria is a veteran foreign-affairs journalist based at the U.N. since 1990. He has written for the Boston Globe, the London Daily Telegraph, the Johannesburg Star, the Montreal Gazette, the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers. He can be reached at joelauria@gmail.com and followed on Twitter at @unjoe.

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10 comments for “Risks in Putin’s Syria Withdrawal

  1. George
    March 17, 2016 at 8:50 am

    There is still a deterrent. The S-400 and Su-35s are staying. A no fly zone is in effect out of the question.

  2. Evangelista
    March 16, 2016 at 8:16 pm

    Empires are expensive. And Empires make enemies, both within, amongst those the imperial authority must control, and outside, among those who fear the Empire, for its size, apparent power and necessary hunger, to maintain itself and pay its bills.

    The Soviet Union’s becoming an empire and struggling to maintaiin itself as an empire trapped it in poverty and prevented it being able to make friends, inside, where conquered peoples maintained animosities, or outside, where imperial ‘dominant influence’ was perceived a danger, constant so long as the empire had a foot-hold that could be contrived an excuse.

    Putin appears to be very much aware of the roll empire played in the struggles and finally the downfall of the Soviet Empire, and in the post-empire animosities that were responsible, along with the western advantage-taking and double-dealing that Gorbachev apparently did not foresee, or thought that Russian good-faith would bring the western powers to stop the unscrupulous from.

    A significant part of Putin’s, Lavrov’s and present-day Russia’s statecraft and statesmanship, which has propelled the nation from an all but economically conquered one struggling to retain any standing to a power with moral authority above both the United States’ and the European Union’s, has been the Russian government’s recognition of its own borders being its borders, and Putin’s and Lavrov’s, at least, recognition that being a trustworthy neighbor-state is what is important, is what is necessary to getting along in a multi-culture world. It is for this that Russia did not invade Ukraine, to ‘save it from itself’, or told other smaller nations around it what to do, or how to do, or even told the breakaway Ukrainian provinces what and how to do, apart from as partners with others, through treaty terms, as the Minsk one.

    You will notice, if you go back and review, that ’empire-building’ and ‘dominating’ have been constants in western accusations against Russia, especially in regard to Ukraine. The accusations come up in the case of Crimea, too, of course, where they fall pretty much flat for Crimea having been forced by the western-nazi Maidan regime-change to seek someone’s protection, and for Crimeans having all but unanimously voted to throw themselves into Russia’s arms (the loud howls of the West are the howls of the ogre who erred in showing himself an ogre before getting Princess Crimea fully into his clutches).

    In Syria Russia advocated for ‘International Law’, as it, with China, did in the Libya situation, when US and NATO lust for aggressive action carried the UN into illegal war-making. In Syria Russia entered the conflict at Syrian invitation. Russia recognized Syrian autonomy and authority. Russia’s position was UN legal; it was in Syria as an ally and supporter of the recognized Syrian government.

    Of course you heard much hub-bub and howl that Russia was ‘taking over’ and was ‘the dominant power’ in Syria. One saw much assumption that the Syrian government, that Assad is President of, was a Russian subsidiary, become ‘a puppet to Moscow’ and all that.

    The Russian withdrawal, having accomplished what it entered the fray to do, what Assad’s government asked its help to do, is unusual only in its being so alien to Western expectation and Western pattern and methodology.

    For anyone who has paid attention to Russian actions and Russian statements of policy and expressions of concern in regard to UN and international departures, the Russian withdrawal from Syria, leaving the stabilized situation for Assad’s government to carry on and continue, is exactly what was looked for, what Russian precedents under Putin and Lavrov indicated could be expected. The withdrawal is ‘astonishing’, if it is, only because such intelligence and international integrity and self-control are so unusual in the international world created by the US and EU, who have serious trouble seeing themselves as co-party, ‘partner’, ‘colleague’ nations and national entities among a world of co-party, partner and colleague nations, neighbors insead of superiors and subordinates.

    Russia’s particular timing in withdrawing now is very likely also influenced by Turkey’s incursing and invading into Syrian territory. Legally, internationally, Turkey’s aggressive war action calls for an international response, a response of UN origin and initiation. Russia withdrawing after helping the Syrian government regain control after the Da’esh invasion leaves the international stage set, with a recent example of internationally legal behavior, for the world to follow, or to challenge the world to now, in the Turkish invasion situation, come up to.

    It is a very funny situation (in my opinion), considering that the Western ‘powers’ were ‘surreptitiously’ supporting the Da-esh effort, using Turkey, and pushing Erdogan and his ambitions forward to, until the Russian help for the legal government of Syria pushed their actions out into the open. Unless one is a sneaking Putin-basher leader of a sneaker-nation, or a neo-con who has been puppet-mastering such a leader. If you are one of those you might see the latest Russian action as another deliberately mean and dirty Russian trick that Putin and his croneys are playing on you…

    • Luke
      March 17, 2016 at 12:48 pm

      Exellent analysis!

  3. Zachary Smith
    March 16, 2016 at 8:02 pm

    Perhaps in a game of chicken with Obama, Putin blinked first.

    I’m more favorable to the “grand bargain” notion, but it’s totally a guessing game. There’s an old saying which goes something like this: If You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, How Will You Know When You Get There? In my uninformed opinion Russia came to Syria to prevent the creation of a “no-fly” zone. That would have led the US and its lunatic ‘allies’ to do to Syria what Obama, Hillary, and the rest did to Libya. But that’s just a guess – whatever it was they came to do, the Russians seem to feel that they’ve done it ‘well enough’.

    But now that the Russian deterrent will be gone, Turkish and Saudi appetites might be whetted

    Unless the stories I’ve been reading are wrong, this isn’t a valid concern. Not all of the airplanes are leaving, and definitely not the air defenses. In fact, I’d wager the latter will increase. If a Turkish airplane crosses the border, it still risks being shot out of the sky.

  4. David Otness
    March 15, 2016 at 8:33 pm

    Excellent analysis, Joe.
    And how does this timing tie into US electoral politics. I have a nagging feeling it does.

    • Alex Johns
      March 16, 2016 at 8:00 pm

      Putin didn’t blink first.
      Sorry, but it is not “good analysis “. Russia is there .
      Russian Warplanes Bomb Column of Terrorists Entering Syria from Turkey—- http://www.veteranstoday.com/2016/03/16/russian-warplanes-bomb-column-of-terrorists-entering-syria-from-turkey/

      • Joe Lauria
        March 17, 2016 at 2:45 pm

        I wrote my article within hours of Putin’s announcement and set forth a series of questions that it immediately rose. The story you posted is a day later as the situation started to become clearer. Russia will continue to conduct limited sorties against extremist forces, and this is good news. The air defenses are staying. None of this was known in the immediate aftermath of Putin’s statement when this piece was written. Nor did I say Putin blinked. I said it was possible.

  5. Oleg
    March 15, 2016 at 1:48 pm

    Everyone seem to forget about the planned visit of Saudi King to Russia in mid-March. Russia partial withdrawal from Syria makes many things possible with Saudis. There is more to come in the near future regarding the situation in Syria. Also do not forget that Russia has always had close ties to Syria, and this is not limited to Assad and his government. When I was a student, we had dozens of Syrians who studied with us. Two of my university classmates have been married to Syrians and actually went to live there. I am not sure what happened to them now, probably they are now in Russia, but this kind of soft power network never ceased to exist in Syria, and I am quite sure it also extends to moderate opposition. So Russia’s military scale-back removes an obstacle towards collaboration between some of the opposition and the government. Which should be really supported by everyone, provided that their declared and real goals are the same, of course.

  6. Richard Steven Hack
    March 15, 2016 at 1:06 pm

    As The Saker’s analysis on his blog suggests, Putin never actually stated Russia would remain until ISIS was destroyed, but only until the situation was stabilized and negotiations to resolve the situation could begin.

    However, I, too, suspect that this withdrawal is too soon. I think Putin should have waited another three months or so until Raqaa was taken and serious negotiations were actually under way.

    The problem with considering ISIS defeated is that it will never be defeated as long as it is receiving support from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. And those countries would only be supporting ISIS if the US and NATO were tacitly in agreement with them to allow it for their own geopolitical ends.

    However, it is possible that Russia can come back in as quickly as it did originally if things go south, especially if they have pre-positioned logistical supplies at their air and naval base. So if the withdrawal results in a threat to Syria again, I’m sure Putin will respond with his usual authority.

  7. Erik
    March 15, 2016 at 12:01 pm

    Good questions. Glad they took my advice. It is hard to believe that Russia would permit a US force to control W Syria as it would lose its only Mediterranean naval base at Latakia. Also hard to imagine a stable federal system without UN DMZs or at least walls between Turkey/Kurds/IS. But if an E Syria IS can be contained, the rebel military may become a smaller defense force, IS must focus upon administration rather than military operations, and the picture should be very different in a generation.

    Then the problem of stabilization and growth toward democracy is one of preventing external provocations that keep the right wing elements in power on all sides, as in Korea. We can be sure that the US right wing will do that to get campaign bribes from Israel or the Saudis.

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