Moscow – By announcing the withdrawal of the bulk of Russian warplanes from Syria, President Vladimir Putin wants to get out of his Syrian adventure at a point when he looks like a winner. The Russian president timed his statement to the launch of Syria peace talks in Geneva on Monday, voicing hope that the move will help win the opposition trust and help the negotiations succeed.
In five-and-half months of Russian air campaign, the Russian warplanes have flown more than 6,000 sorties, helping turn the tide of war in Assad’s favor. Under the Russian air cover, Assad’s military fully cleared his Alawite minority heartland, the coastal province of Latakia from his foes and made major gains in other regions.
Their most significant achievement recently was the offensive around Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and its commercial capital before the war. The Syrian army has effectively cut supply routes to the part of Aleppo, which is controlled by militants, taking a forceful stance ahead of peace talks in Geneva. With Assad’s positions strengthened to the point when his foes are willing to negotiate, Putin can now afford to pull back.
SMART END GAME
Timing his pullout announcement to the launch of the talks in Geneva between the Syrian government and the opposition allowed Putin to pose like a peacemaker. It also offered him an ideal moment to get out of his Syrian adventure before the risks become too high.
The recent Kurdish advances north of Aleppo cast a challenge to Turkey, which vowed to send its troops to invade Syria to halt the offensive, describing it as an existential threat. Such a move would dramatically raise the risks of a direct military clash between Russia and Turkey, a NATO member. With Russia-Turkey relations already badly strained over the downing of a Russian warplane at the Syrian border last November, any other incident like that could provoke a full-fledged conflict that could potentially draw NATO in.
Another danger was the threat by the Saudis and other backers of the Syrian militants to supply them with air defense weapons. That could dramatically raise the war costs for Moscow and quickly make Putin look like a loser.
MAIN GOALS ACHIEVED
The Russian military campaign has achieved a key goal of shoring up Assad to the point when his foes abandoned their hopes of ousting him by force and became willing to sit down for talks. Putin never made the goal of winning the Syrian war for Assad, which would be impossible. His tasks were more pragmatic: make Russia a key player in the Syrian crisis by helping Assad secure his grip on power, then broker talks to negotiate a solution.
Putin’s major objective was to force the United States to cooperate with Russia in settling the crisis, thus breaking attempts by Washington and its allies to isolate Moscow. In Putin’s view, by acting like a key mediator in the Syrian crisis Moscow would be able to turn the page on the Ukrainian crisis that has badly strained its ties with the West and become an indispensable global power broker.
Russia has made a big step toward achieving that goal by brokering a Syria cease-fire together with the United States. The truce that began on Feb. 27 has largely held, even though the Syrian government and the opposition have continued to blame each other for violating it.
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