“Putin is a wily guy. He is showing he’s a statesman. Russia is also sending a message to Assad who has been sounding too confident.”
That’s from Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma, and a frequent commentator on Syria’s five-year conflict.
On Monday, Putin surprised the world by announcing a partial withdrawal of the Russian military presence from Syria. Moscow’s warplanes, backed by Hezbollah ground troops, had effectively encircled Aleppo where rebels were preparing to make what amounted to a last stand just prior to the ceasefire that took effect late last month.
"I think that the tasks set to the defense ministry are generally fulfilled,” Putin said. “That is why I order to begin withdrawal of most of our military group from Syria starting from tomorrow," he added.
Indeed. Despite President Obama’s early contention that Russia would end up in a “quagmire” in Syria, The Kremlin instead showed what happens when a mishmash of loosely aligned rebels squares off against a modern air force.
Five months and thousands upon thousands of sorties later, the rebel cause has become virtually hopeless. It’s much easier to broker a ceasefire when the enemy has been, for all intents and purposes, decimated.
Now, all eyes are on peace talks in Geneva where there is “no Plan B,” according to United Nations special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura.
De Mistura has called a political transition the “mother of all issues,” with the only alternative being a return to war. But Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem has shown little willingness to negotiate for the future of President Assad while the main Syrian opposition umbrella group, the High Negotiations Committee looks determined to demand the installation of some manner of interim government devoid of Assad and his top brass.
"[We don't know] who we are negotiating with and what the issues are," Syria's UN representative, Bashar Jaafari complains. All sides probably feel the same way.
The media is generally pitching Putin's pullback as a move designed to put pressure on Assad to negotiate. That may be partially true, but make no mistake, it also puts pressure on the rebels. They are not, after all, negotiating from a position of strength. Moscow will keep a presence at its airbase in Latakia and it's no longer clear that the anti-Assad elements which are party to the ceasefire are in any kind of shape to mount a counteroffensive. In other words: they probably aren't optimistic about their chances if the war resumes.
"For Putin, who’s worked with the U.S. to promote diplomacy in Syria even though the two powers backed opposite sides in the war, it’s an opportunity to display peacemaking credentials while preserving the gains Assad’s army made under Russian air cover," Bloomberg writes, in what's probably a reasonably accurate assessment of Moscow's gambit.
If both sides come to some kind of tenuous agreement, Putin will get to claim that Russia came, saw, and conquered, then brokered a peace settlement - two things no country had been able to do in Syria since the beginning of the war in 2011.
“[It's] a symbolic gesture to sweeten the opposition’s pill, because Assad is clearly not going to go away even if Russia slightly reduces its operations,” Anton Lavrov, an independent Russian military analyst told Bloomberg, adding that “this is clearly linked to the start of negotiations in Geneva [and] it’s a signal to the opposition and an attempt to influence their agreeability.” That underscores our assessment above: the opposition has now seen what can happen when there's a lack of "agreeability," so now Putin will play good cop to his own original bad cop and see if that works to bring the rebels to the table.
Meanwhile, Russian state television has begun to air the first footage of Russian warplanes triumphantly departing from Hmeymim air base in Latakia.
"The personnel are loading equipment, logistics items and stock onto transport aircraft," the Russian Defense Ministry said. "Aircraft from the Hmeymim base will fly back to the airfields where they are permanently based on Russian territory accompanied by military transport aircraft."
Meanwhile, on the ground, al-Nusra is stirring up trouble in Idlib. As we wrote yesterday evening, the al-Qaeda affiliate overran Division 13 at Marat al-Numan on Sunday, seizing US-made weapons including TOWs and armored vehicles. "On Monday, there were reports of demonstrations against the Nusra Front in territory it holds in Idlib province in north-western Syria," BBC reports. "Photos and videos circulated on social media by an analyst with the Brookings Institution think-tank showed supporters of Western-backed rebels marching in the town of Marat al-Numan [and] there were also reports the protestors had stormed a Nusra Front prison, freeing detainees."
Are we seeing a mini-civilian uprising v. Nusra in Marat al-Numan? Civilians stormed AQ prison, freeing 4 detainees pic.twitter.com/12TiMMKtEQ— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) March 14, 2016
#BREAKING Al-Qaeda in Syria vows new offensive after Russian pullout— AFP news agency (@AFP) March 15, 2016
As for ISIS, the SAA is reportedly advancing on Palmyra, the UNESCO heritage site seized by the militants last year in what commentators decried as a major blow to the effort to preserve antiquity.
Russia has indicated it will still support Syria in the fight against "the terrorists."
#BREAKING Russian planes to keep striking 'terrorist' targets: Russian official in Syria— AFP news agency (@AFP) March 15, 2016
And what, you might ask, happens if the SAA and the US-led coalition still can't manage to finish off ISIS and al-Nusra? Here's Viktor Ozerov, head of the defense committee in the upper house of Russia’s parliament with the answer: "We can come back."